The Aspen String Trio

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Aspen String Trio holds residencies with UB students
Six classes meet and discuss music in UB’s Wright Theater
By Rachel Wooley

You may have noticed that The Aspen String Trio, UB’s “ensemble-in-residence,” plays concerts here at UB fairly frequently (once per semester, to be exact – the most recent was on October 9). You may have even attended one or more of these concerts (if you haven’t, you’re missing out).  But what exactly does it mean to be an “ensemble-in-residence”?
During concert week, the Aspen String Trio holds sessions with classes ranging from graduate-level Creativity classes to undergrad algebra and Integrated Arts classes. During these sessions, or “residencies” (which are coordinated by Kimberley Lynne of Spotlight UB) the musicians – David Perry on violin, Victoria Chiang on viola, and Michael Mermagen on cello – play pieces from their concert and discuss them with the students. They also discuss the musicians’ instruments and musical backgrounds, and a range of other topics. Students are invited to choose the music they’d like to hear and to ask any questions they might have.
The discussions in each residency began similarly: the trio played a piece of music and the students were asked to react to that piece. All students were invited to speak up, not just those with a background in music. Many of them stated that the Martinů piece from the program, for example, made them think of movie soundtracks – the music felt dramatic and seemed to create a sense of foreboding or suspense. In fact, this was the universal response to all of the music that the Trio played: there was a story being told in each piece. This effect was due to the changes in tempo, volume and harmony among the instruments within each piece. “It’s important to have contrast in a successful composition,” Mermagen said.
 From there, the discussions were tailored to the class subjects, so each conversation was different. The creativity classes, which are part of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts, sometimes had very specific ideas about the pieces – the writers reacted to the music by “giving us a short story,” Mermagen said; it was a case of “their art affecting us and our art affecting them.” All three musicians agreed that they learned from the students too, and in some cases the interaction changed the way they looked at their own music. This “cross-pollination” of art with other subjects and the “enhance[ment of] your art by studying other arts” is extremely important, Mermagen said.
The discussion in the algebra class turned more to the physics of music – rhythm, frequencies, sound and acoustics. For example, Mermagen demonstrated on the cello how cutting any of his strings in half would raise the note of that string by exactly one octave. Cutting it in half again would raise it one more octave and so on. For the record, none of the Trio’s stringed instruments – violin, viola, and cello – has frets or any other marking to indicate where the notes are, which creates an added layer of complexity to learning – the musicians must memorize the distance between notes on the strings and learn the notes by ear. Other discussion included the tuning of the instruments and why the string on the bow is made of horsehair (it’s because horsehair is particularly rough – it has barbs in it which collect rosin and pull more strongly on the string, causing the vibration that creates the sound).
The Arts 201 class got into the economics of a career in the arts, during which the Trio shared stories of how they’d supported themselves after finishing school. All three are currently professors; Chiang teaches at the Peabody Conservatory, Mermagen at Catholic University and Perry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Chiang was fortunate to find a teaching position at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana upon graduation, she says; from there she “jumped around for a while,” taking jobs in Florida and Connecticut before settling in at Peabody. Mermagen started off freelancing in New York, which for him included movie soundtracks and pop recordings (he played in two songs on Michael Jackson’s HIStory album, for example). Perry freelanced in New York City as well; he played with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra then took a job in Wichita, KS, before taking his current position. All three musicians played in various other chamber and orchestral groups as well before forming the Aspen String Trio, and they each continue to maintain other musical projects. They seemed to agree that the easiest way to balance career and family and to maintain job stability as a musician is through academia (which seems to be the case for all of the arts) or by becoming a regular member of an orchestra.

Some of the questions asked by students:

Why do you move around while playing?

Mermagen offered several reasons: likening it to playing baseball, he pointed out that when you swing the bat, you don’t just move your arms – it’s the same principle when moving a bow. Movement of the body affects the weight of the bow, creating “soft sound or loud sound;” it also allows the musician to be “involved in the music and inspired by it.” The rhythm of the music is affected by movement too, Chiang added; “if your body doesn’t go with [the rhythm of the music], it’s much harder to play.”

What’s your favorite time signature to play?

“Everyone’s favorite is 4/4,” Mermagen joked, though in many cases even when a piece states that it’s written in a particular time signature, “that doesn’t mean it’s going to be felt in the meter.” Sometimes the signature changes throughout the piece, or the different instruments in the composition seem to be playing in different signatures. The Trio demonstrated examples of this, pointing out how it adds to the tension and energy of the piece.

How much maintenance is involved in caring for your instruments?

During the discussion, it was revealed that Mermagen’s cello was built in Italy in 1774 (meaning that its 240th birthday is coming up in a couple of years). Perry’s violin is even older, having been built in Venice in 1711 (it’s only had “three owners in the last 150 years,” Perry said). Chiang’s viola was custom-built for her in Paris in 1996. Despite the age differences, care for each instrument is fairly similar: if kept from high humidity and extreme temperature changes, they stay in good shape. Aside from worn-out strings, the instruments occasionally need to be re-glued in places. The glue used, Mermagen said, “is made from animal hide” – it’s not especially strong or sticky, which is intentional: if the instrument is stressed, e.g. from humidity, it’s the glue that comes apart instead of the wood. The glue is much easier to replace (though it still involves taking the instrument to a specialist).

Do you think it’s important for musicians to be good at marketing themselves or networking?

Mermagen stated (and the others agreed) that a musician’s skill or talent wasn’t an accurate indicator of their career success – his students’ success, he observed, sometimes seemed as affected by chance as by skill. He’d seen brilliant musicians with little or no networking skills who were nevertheless successful, and those who were perhaps less talented but with more skill at self-promotion also found success. But, Chiang added, having the ability to market yourself as a musician is certainly helpful, and will likely become increasingly so as the arts continue to lose funding and the market becomes more competitive.

The Aspen String Trio will return for another concert – and more residencies – in April 2013. Although there’s no way to determine the full residency schedule now,  you could certainly suggest that your spring professors arrange a residency – as was demonstrated by this semester’s discussions, music can be related to many other fields of study.