The highly regarded songwriter and producer Ben Mink once said of music writing that all you need is a good six minutes. He was referring to jamming but I think more broadly he was referring to inspiration. Mink is probably best know for his work with k.d. lang but he’s also worked with some of the biggest names in rock, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and Geddy Lee of Rush, his friend and occasional collaborator.
I think of Mink’s remark a lot when I listen to music, whether it’s contemporary music or Baroque, and it was the first thing I thought of when I heard Franz Biber’s Harmonia artificioso-arios for the first time. What really caught my attention was Partia No. 1, which, after the introductory part, goes into a modern-sounding sequence in which the harmony and melody play off each other in a dramatic way. To my ears, if ever there was a good six minutes (or, in this case, a good two minutes) this was it. An inspired bit of writing to be sure.
Biber is widely regarded by musicologists and music theorists as one of the most important composers for the violin ever, and I’m guessing part of the reason for that is his use of cross-tuning, a technique called scordatura. I believe one of the reasons Partia No. 1 is so riveting is because of the cross-tuning while the melody and harmony play off each other in the dramatic fashion that they do. And, again, it’s so modern sounding.
One of the points made about Biber’s violin work is that his cross-tuning technique enables him to comfortably play otherwise difficult positions on the fingerboard, like the sixth and seventh positions, and to use multiple stops in “intricate polyphonic passages,” as it’s put on the Biber page on Wikipedia.
It’s interesting that Keith Richards, in his thoroughly enjoyable memoir, Life, couldn’t say enough about how important alternative tuning is to his work. He says he spent years mastering alternative tunings, the results of which you can hear on some of the Rolling Stones’ biggest numbers like “Start Me Up” and “Street Fighting Man.” In fact, if I remember correctly what Richards said in his book, two of the Stones’ biggest hits, “I Can’t Get No (Satisfaction)” and “Jumping Jack Flash,” are in many respects the same song but with different tuning.
In the two-minute video clip below, you’ll hear the part of Partia No. 1 that caught my attention for its drama and modern sensibility. It shows that good music never dates itself, and I think that’s something even Keith Richards would attest to.—Nabob, On Baroque