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The signifying single note

Photographic portrait of Max Bruch
from Wikipedia (public domain)

Listening to a student performance of the first movement of Max Bruch’s Opus 26 violin concerto in G minor, accompanied only by a piano at Bettina Mussumeli’s Violin Studio Recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I was reminded of how much signification can be packed into a single note. That note occurs in the sixth measure, preceded only by two measures of a timpani roll and three measures of a simple wind motif, supported from below by a pair of horns. The note itself is the lowest pitch the violin can play, as the violinist draws the bow across the G string. It is notated as a half note to overlap the end of the opening motif; but the measure is a free-form cadenza marked as a grand pause for the orchestra.

Even if Bruch had not marked that note forte to contrast with the piano dynamic in the winds, this could not fail to be a moment of intense dramatic impact. This is not mere throat-clearing before the first cadenza unfolds. Rather, it is an arresting demonstration of just how in music so much can be signified through so few resources.

The signification of that note is not a matter of denotation. It is unlikely that Bruch was trying to depict anything explicit, as if he were writing a concerto that would double as a tone poem. Rather, signification emerges through connotation, more specifically the conjunction of two “orthogonal” connotations.

The first of these has to do with the nature of the measure itself and the role of that opening note. If the winds have just taken a measured approach to their opening statement, the violin establishes one of those moments, which I have discussed on my national site, that conveys the impression of time standing still. This, of course, has nothing to do with the objective ticking of any physical clock. At the subjective level, however, the listener is confronted with the strong urge to let go of time-consciousness, to inhabit, if only for the sounding of that one note, a “personal space” from which time itself is absent.

Bruch was hardly the first composer to exploit the subjectivity of time-consciousness. (That article on my national site covers composers from Johann Sebastian Bach to John Coltrane.) However, his capacity to distill that exploitation down to a single note makes for one of this concerto’s greatest virtues.

Furthermore, at a more dramatic level, one senses in this single note a sense of solitude or even isolation. After all, the note is there to introduce the first solo passage for the violin. In other words, through that connotation of solitude, consciousness lets go of space as well as time. Consequently, through this one note the listener can abandon all the dimensionality of the physical world, spatial as well as temporal. In the sort of paradoxical reasoning that one might encounter in Zen, one lets go of all of the impediments of physicality by embracing this one vibrating string.

Listening to that string being vibrated by last night’s student, I once again found myself dwelling on how little can be expressed through the vibrations in loudspeakers and headphones. In a sense, one can only appreciate that abandoning of space and time if one is within the spatial and temporal presence of the string itself and of that in-the-moment conjunction of string and bow with the individual drawing that bow. The signification in that context is so strong that it can transcend even those wind sonorities being replaced by an accompanying pianist.

One is reminded that the richest experiences of music can boil down to a single note; but one can only enjoy the physical presence of that note as it is being created through a performer, rather than reproduced through technology.