acoustics, balance, Baroque bow, Boulder Bach Festival, bowing, Chaconne in D minor, emotions, improvisation, Mozart, painting, phrasing, Rick Erickson, Sergiu Luca, string tone, The Holy Trinity Bach Players, vibrato, Zachary Carrettin
Edward McCue (EM) How is the Boulder Bach Festival ensemble developing its own sound?
Zachary Carrettin (ZC) Our instrumentalists come from a diversity of backgrounds, and each one of us has strong opinions and a strong musical voice. As we prepare our February and March programs, we’re working together to develop a unified voice with real character.
Step one has been to begin using our Baroque bows. Last fall, when I asked my colleagues if they had access to a Baroque bow, virtually everyone said they owned one. We have decided to use our bows in a way that is informed by the Italian and French music of Bach’s time and before, and equally important is our decision to pay careful attention to the acoustic of our performance space.
Personally, I first became really aware of a room’s acoustic when I was working with a great German violinist who was bouncing the bow quite high off the string in a very detached manner. Because we were playing in a space that seated more than a thousand people and was carpeted, the acoustic didn’t resound, and I realized that, after working with him for a couple of days, his style of playing had probably developed over decades of playing in stone chapels in Europe, which have a lot of resonance. His detached manner of playing was probably perfect for those spaces, which create a musical line through the sonorous ringing of the room, whereas when we play in less resonant spaces in North America, we have to create the legato that is not provided by the room.
Some venues, however, elongate the lines of our music more than others. For example, St. John’s in Boulder has an attractive acoustic. While its resonance does not last for a long period of time, it creates a beautiful sonority. St. Andrew’s in Denver, on the other hand, has more of an after ring, so we have to make immediate adjustments to our playing technique in order to create the sound we want.
So, as an ensemble, we have decided to create the ideal sound, the sound we want the audience to hear, wherever we play, whatever the acoustic.
EM When you played the Chaconne in D minor (BWV 1004) last September in Boulder at St. John’s, what was on your mind?
ZC The Chaconne is a difficult question. In music it’s such a masterpiece and it’s quite lengthy, and what it has to say has layers of complexity. I find that often I choose to approach it more like a lutenist than as a bowed string player. Bowed strings players are often going to go after a sustained sound, maybe more like an organ, and I find that, in the case of this work, some of the intimacy is lost if there is too much sustain.
The challenge I found in playing in St. John’s was finding the right balance between me producing the legato or the room offering it. So I explored it a little bit as I was getting to know that space. At times I thought I was underplaying a bit, and at times I thought I was overplaying it. There’s a point where you connect with the acoustic in which you’re playing and it becomes your instrument, and that is always what I’m looking for. I definitely wanted to bring the listener to the piece rather than to exert it to them, but creating that intimacy can be difficult in an unresponsive acoustic, as the danger is always underplaying.
Having said that, there are many techniques at our disposal to compensate for acoustic shortcomings of a room: bow speed, the pressure, the weight of the bow, where we place the bow on the string, when to vibrate, when not to vibrate. These are all things that I am constantly exploring because I feel that I need to be able to adjust to every venue, and the only way to do that is to practice all of the options
One of my teachers, Sergiu Luca, once told me that he felt he understood Mozart when he had played a thousand phrases of Mozart each a thousand times and each in a hundred different ways. I might be getting the numbers wrong on that, but the idea being that he had tried every possibility for those phrases. He also told me that he didn’t improvise onstage, but rather he had tried all the possibilities, and any performance would be a collection of all of the bowings and fingering he had tried, put together in a new puzzle.
That’s really inspiring because all of us in the Baroque music profession improvise while we perform, but we also want to be improvising in the practice room. We constantly want to be trying all of the fingerings that might work in the various spaces. Having said that, when I was an undergraduate at Rice University, I often practiced in bathrooms, in stairwells, in organ halls, in concert halls, and especially in churches. Even during summers, when I spent time with my family in Venice, I played masses with organists and tried to play in as many acoustic environments as possible.
And even when I was touring with Yanni, whenever I would get a day off, I would find a church in that town or city in which to practice, and when I’m on the east coast here in the United States, I find it delightful to practice in churches built in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I think the acoustic is our instrument, and we want to practice in as many acoustic environments as possible.
EM You mentioned that the acoustic at St. Andrew’s is more resonant than that at St. John’s. In a sense, then, is it more gratifying for you and for the ensemble to play there?
ZC The acoustic in Denver simply makes things easier. We don’t need to sustain. We don’t need to use vibrato. We can focus on the purity of the pitch, and we can allow the bow to do its natural decay. So in a way, the music plays itself. Having said that, it is also a slightly brighter sound than St. John’s.
St. John’s has a warmth, but because St. John’s doesn’t have the amount of after ring that St. Andrew’s has, St. John’s requires us to hold the notes a little longer and to create the decay. So, in other words, in a space that is extremely resonant, one can just pull the bow across the string and release it and the bloom happens and the decay happens by the nature of the acoustic, but in a space like St. John’s, we have to control the decay with our hand. Each bow stroke has to be thought out because we get the sonority, we get the color and we get the warmth at St. John’s, but we don’t get the after ring. So I think the challenge for us in St. John’s is to recreate the sound we created in St. Andrew’s, but in order to do it we sometimes need some vibrato, we sometimes need to avoid open strings, and we sometimes need to keep the bow on the string longer. When playing at St. John’s we have to remember the sound of the performance we gave at St. Andrew’s but forget the physiology.
EM What is the sound at Holy Trinity in New York, where Rick Erickson leads the Bach Vespers?
ZC Ah, that is truly one of the most wonderful spaces for this music on the continent.
Holy Trinity has it all. It has a wonderful amount of after ring, but it doesn’t linger excessively. If an after ring lingers too long, then different harmonies begin to stack upon one another and you start to hear cacophony. In that situation you often have to play in a more detached matter so that the after ring doesn’t become muddy. But you also have to take slower tempos, and sometimes you don’t want to take a slower tempo. What is so wonderful at Holy Trinity is that you can play at any tempo and at any speed of harmonic motion. If a harmony or a chord is changing on every beat, you can still play at a fast tempo. Then there is this wonderful, warm ring. It’s very homogenous, so the choir and orchestra always sound wonderfully blended. However, no individual voice is lost, so you hear the violas and you hear the altos. It doesn’t matter how many violins you have because you still hear the bassoon and you still hear the continuo organ accompanying. All of the different timbres come out within a wonderful blend.
What happens in that space is that it is really easy to stop forcing the details of the music. A musician with enough experience can simply play, and the space does half of the work for him or for her. Also it puts one in a space psychologically and physically, and dare I say spiritually, where there’s a little less sense of ego or of individual and a little more sense of being a conduit for the music.
I’m reminded of the Renaissance paintings with the celestial orchestras with angels playing instruments. The angels always appear as if they’re not exerting any effort. There’s just this sound going through them, this harmony of the spheres being transmitted through them. I think that, to some extent, in spaces like Holy Trinity, that actually happens.