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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution


 
The Essay
Show #406
Violinics
David Gunn

The modern violin is a useful stringed instrument played with a bow. It is composed of four strings, a fingerboard, a chinrest plus nearly five dozen other ancillary parts. (Repair maxim: if you disassemble and then reassemble a violin, you will always have parts left over, all of which may be discarded.) The curvy, Baroque architecture of its body was modeled after sailing ships of the 1600s. In fact, the violin shares four important traits with ocean-going vessels of that era: (1) both utilize a rudder to change pitch; (2) both can be steered from their respective bridges; (3) the wooden hulls of both must be waxed to discourage termite infestation; and (4) both are likely to capsize after an hour in heavy seas.

In the hands of a skilled practitioner, the violin is capable of great acoustic pleasures, a fact that belies its pugnacious origins. The first clue as to its disturbing ancestry is found in the word's etymology: violin comes from the Latin, violentus, or violent. Indeed, the violin initially was a weapon. Four deadly spikes protruded from the fingerboard end of the instrument, and the tailpiece featured a nasty, spring-loaded gaff. Both were very persuasive in hand-to-hand combat. An early definition of fiddle--nowadays a slang term for a violin--was "to lash out with violent force, often with a lethal weapon." The vanquished party, or what was left of him, was often called "fiddlesticks." The bow was a favorite with archers because its rosined strings helped the arrow fly true to its target. To this day, William Tell swears that had he used anything but a violin bow to launch the arrow that cleaved the apple atop his son's head, he would have been booked on suspicion of manslaughter.

In the early 1900s, design improvements in the submarine led to its supplanting the violin as the weapon of choice among warfare cognoscenti. With its bellicose days numbered, the violin began to take on more pacific overtones. The spikes were replaced with tuning pegs, which dramatically increased the instrument's favor among musicians. Still, they complained about the gaff in the tailpiece. The device, never well designed, tended to engage during sustained pizzicato passages. It was removed for good in 1903. Gustav Mahler was conducting the New York Philharmonic in a spirited performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. During the third movement, however, the entire string section suffered so many lacerations and abrasions that they refused to play the rest of the concert until the gaffs were removed.

The history of the violin is rife with tales of the macabre, but the one that still raises the most musicological nape hair occurred every March 15th until just a handful of years ago. It took place in the tiny hamlet of Cabo San Bengaze on the western coast of Baja California. For centuries, villagers there celebrated Día del dios crustáceo, the "day of the Crustacean God," by paying homage to the omnipotent decapod that filled their ocean weirs with shrimp and crab. Their boisterous festival included la danza del camarón enloquecido ("dance of the crazed shrimp") in which they paraded around town in lavishly gaudy costumes while singing El buen camarón hace a buenos vecinos ("Good shrimp make good neighbors!"). Chief among the musical instruments that accompanied the festivities was the violenco, a heavily armed stringed instrument that developed independently from the North-of-the-border violin. After the adults had danced and sung their fill, it was time for the village children to reenact el sacrificio al buen camarón vecino gigante, "the sacrifice to the giant good neighbor shrimp." Gaily dressed as krill, a dozen or so children lined up on the sea wall, faced the ocean, and began to chant ¡venido a nosotros, nos atrevemos le, usted criatura muda del mar!, or "come to us, we dare you, you dumb sea critter!" Then they would hoot, holler and heckle until he showed up, which never took more than a few minutes. It was never clear what he was. Twenty feet long from eyestalks to prehensile tail, the creature looked like an animatronic escapee from a grade B science fiction movie. The villagers simply called it el monstruo de la langosta, Lobster Monster. At the first sign of him--and there was never any doubt that it was a male organism--the children grew suddenly quiet, respectful, as if they knew what was to follow. Lobster Monster knew, too, for when it spotted the adults sneaking up behind them, it opened its ghastly jaws wide. "Feed me," it seemed to say; and the adults complied. They hit los muchachos y las muchachas with the violencos, forcing them off of the sea wall, where they were eagerly snatched and devoured by the giant decapod. In return, the villagers enjoyed bountiful crops of shrimp, crabs and lobsters--small ones--for the next year.

The horrid spectacle finally died out when extreme skiers discovered that the violenco could be utilized as radical downhill racing footwear. In one whirlwind weekend, hundreds of ultra fit sports buffs descended upon Cabo San Bengaze and bought every last instrument. The next March 15th, Día del dios crustáceo was again celebrated, but without the armed fiddles to goad them, the sacrificial children refused to jump into the ocean. Instead, they heaved the particularly corpulent village mayor onto Lobster Monster, which broke the backs of both. Since then, the local fishing industry has declined substantially, but many more village youth reach adulthood.

Today's 406th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar features the more modern, non-aggressive violin, conveniently packaged with its owner-operator, whose name conveniently anagrammatizes to "Korean rummy law," and whose motives for being in the vicinity as opposed to her more customary SoCal environs will be revealed soonest by Kalvos.