J. Andrew Wilhite

Hammered


ISSUE 63 | STRIKE | APR 2016

When I was learning the Trio section of the third movement of Beethoven’s Fifth, my teacher, Ira Gold, told me to practice with a hammer. (Yes, literally.) The “stroke” used for this type of spicatto is referred to as “martelé” or “hammered,” and Ira was of the firmest belief that to truly understand the mechanism of the stroke, I needed to 1. hammer nails into wood, and 2. beat the shit out of my strings with a mallet really fast and for a long time. In doing this I understood that the vertical strike was what produced the sound particular to that stroke as much as the vibration caused by the horizontal bow movement. For most strokes, one wants a “pure” vibration, which means that the bow hair is either drawn horizontally along a point on the plane of the string or is used to grip and pluck. Not so for the hammered stroke. The bass must simultaneously belong to the string section and the percussion section in such passages. My first teacher, the illustrous Orin O’Brien, told me that here the bass section should sound like a giant timpani. As someone who is easily distracted, perhaps even curious, of course my practicing devolved to trying to bring out different sounds that were byproducts of this striking mechanism. In my practicing, the technique was abstracted from its musical ideal. The recording that you hear is not really a piece of music but rather a technique laid bare, before its reintegration into a musical system… still on strike.


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