One pleasant April morning, Tracy Silverman is in his home studio in Nashville, demonstrating the range of his electric violin. There isn't a lot of formal repertoire for this unusual instrument, which, with its whining reverb, often sounds more like Jimi Hendrix's guitar than Jascha Heifetz's fiddle.
So Silverman plays his own music. He begins with a movement called "La Danse" from his Second Electric Violin Concerto. Silverman found inspiration for this piece in Henri Matisse's Fauvist painting of five nudes dancing in a circle, in a sort of primitive, ritualistic "Ring Around the Rosie." In his concerto, Silverman imagines the dancers have improvised their own themes.
The piece opens with the first dancer's motif, a catchy, syncopated fiddle tune that serves as a kind of invitation to a primeval barn dance. Silverman taps a pedal on the floor and the theme loops into a rhythmically vital ostinato. A new melody, this one sounding like bright, lyrical electric guitar notes, then enters the mix, conjuring Matisse's second dancer. As "La Danse" unfolds, Silverman adds layers of electronically looped melody to create a shimmering polyphony. The climax evokes one of Eric Clapton's triumphant electric guitar wails.
Noticing with amused satisfaction that his visitor's jaw has fallen to the floor, Silverman decides to complete his musical conquest with a sonic coup de grace. He begins to play a standard, Gershwin's sonorous duet "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." Heifetz, the legendary classical violinist, recorded it with piano accompaniment in 1946.
But Silverman has no need for a piano. His six-string electric violin not only encompasses the entire range of an electric guitar but reaches nearly to the bottom of a cello's dark register. Unlike a traditional violin, which is generally limited to playing one note at a time, Silverman can actually strum the electric violin with a bow, producing a sound that's like strumming a guitar, and play multi-note chords. In "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," he accompanies himself, adding big, chromatic harmonies and bass notes to the familiar theme.
"I played that arrangement for Terry Riley," says Silverman, beaming with boyish pride as he recounts the reaction of his musical hero. "As soon as I finished playing it, he asked to hear it one more time."
On Thursday, May 3, Silverman will get the chance to impress the composer again. The occasion is the world premiere of Riley's Palmian Chord Ryddle for Electric Violin and Orchestra with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra at Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Later this month, the violinist and the NSO will take the concerto, which was written specifically for Silverman, to New York City, performing at Carnegie Hall on May 12.
For composer and soloist alike, and for an orchestra hungry to prove itself on the international stage, the concerts promise to be milestones. The piece represents an ambitious departure for Riley, one of America's most influential avant-garde composers, an enigmatic figure who has spent more time playing in small clubs than posh concert halls. For the NSO, the work is a potential signature piece that could boost the orchestra's reputation as a champion of contemporary classical composition.
Silverman likewise stands to benefit from this bold venture, which will soon see him performing on one of the world's most august stages. And on this morning, playing Gershwin's deeply affecting love song in his Lipscomb-neighborhood studio, Silverman performs with gusto, pleased to see his visitor plainly dazzled.
Then he seems to pull back the reins.
He doesn't want anyone to think he's full of himself. That he's conceited. That would be very un-Terry Riley-like. As the counterculture composer would no doubt say, a craving for adulation is one of the root causes of human suffering. Buddha indicated as much in the second of his Four Noble Truths. So Silverman deflects praise with one of his favorite refrains.
"I don't actually have any musical talent," says the violinist, who speaks with enough earnestness to almost make you believe him. "But I've always been extremely sensitive to music."
The two musical figures behind Palmian Chord Ryddle have taken so many unconventional turns in their winding careers, it seems only inevitable that they should intersect. Riley made music history in 1964 with the premiere of his In C, a sparkling, repetitive piece that all but launched the minimalist movement in music and greatly influenced the likes of John Adams, Philip Glass and Steve Reich. But unlike his minimalist successors, Riley did not go on to become a major composer of symphonies, operas and concertos. Instead, he pursued an alternative lifestyle and career, devoting himself to hippie culture and Buddhist philosophy while mostly playing jazz, avant-garde classical and world music with small ensembles.
"Riley hasn't written a lot of big orchestra pieces," says NSO music director Giancarlo Guerrero, who will conduct the Riley concerto in Nashville and New York. "But he really steps out with this concerto, because it is a big, ambitious orchestral work."
Silverman, 52, likewise followed an unorthodox path. He has the musical pedigree of a thoroughbred: solo debut with the mighty Chicago Symphony Orchestra at 13; graduation from Juilliard at 20. Yet instead of settling into a comfortable career playing classical warhorses with orchestras, the young Silverman turned his back on classical music. After Juilliard, he traded in his four-string acoustic violin for one of those sleek, modern, six-string amplified models. And instead of Tchaikovsky, he started playing jazz and rock in small (and sometimes seedy) clubs.
The electric violinist's career course is matched by an appropriately offbeat look. Silverman wears his hair in long, tightly wound curls — a bit like Kenny G, though the comparison might make him wince. Silverman is understandably sensitive to any smooth jazz comparisons, since his musical role models were all icons of rock, modern jazz and soul: Hendrix, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles. Nevertheless, Silverman has made a career, in part, recording for Windham Hill Records, the label of ambient music stars such as pianist George Winston. Moreover, he often tours with easy listening hunk and crooner Jim Brickman.
Silverman's favored attire is pure rock 'n' roll: blue jeans, T-shirts and a rock star's razor stubble. While demonstrating "Bess, You Is My Woman," he wears a T-shirt emblazoned with the name of one his favorite restaurants, The Smiling Elephant on Eighth Avenue. The violinist has adored spicy Thai food and anything prepared with garlic for almost as long as he's loved music — that is, pretty much from the start.
Born in 1960, Silverman grew up in a family of music lovers in Peekskill, N.Y., just north of New York City. His parents were teachers, not musicians, but the future violinist's father had an extensive collection of classical and jazz LPs. One of those records had a profound effect on the young listener.
"When I was about 4 years old, I listened to my dad's recording of the Sibelius Violin Concerto, and it was so beautiful that it actually made me weep," says Silverman, who as a teen made the Sibelius concerto a specialty. "I was always super-sensitive to music."
Not long after discovering Sibelius, the boy rode his tricycle past the home of a neighbor, who was the concertmaster of a local orchestra. The neighbor was practicing the sensuous violin solo from Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Silverman found the sound to be so captivating that he raced home to get his older brother.
"I told him there was a woman singing beautifully in this house down the street, and that he should go hear her for himself," Silverman remembers. "When we got to the house, my brother said, 'Hey, that's not a woman singing, that's somebody playing the flute.' "
Recalling those stories brought back such fond musical memories for Silverman that he had to go search his studio — located in the detached garage behind the modest Nashville ranch house he shares with his wife and their children — for an acoustic violin. With instrument in hand, he began playing through favorite passages of the Sibelius concerto and Scheherazade. It's likely been years since Silverman has performed either of those classic works. As an electric violinist, he never had a reason to. But he nailed them all the same.
Silverman began formal violin lessons at 5. Within three years, he'd made enough progress to get into Juilliard's pre-college division. But then his father, who was working on a doctorate in education, got a job teaching at Beloit College in Wisconsin. The family moved instead to the Midwest.
Not surprisingly, there were no Juilliard-level violin teachers in Beloit. So two or three times a week, Silverman and his father drove 97 miles to Chicago, where the young violinist entered the preparatory division of the Chicago Music College. There, he began lessons with a young violin teacher named Debbra Wood (now Debbra Wood Schwartz).
Silverman credits Schwartz with providing him with a thorough foundation in violin technique. "I learned almost everything I know about violin from her," he says. In turn, Schwartz remembers the prepubescent Silverman as already being the complete package.
"Tracy had everything it takes to become a successful classical musician," says Schwartz, who spoke recently by phone from her current home in Oakland, Calif. "He was smart, gifted, had phenomenal chops and most importantly had a good sense of humor. You just can't make it in this business if you take yourself too seriously."
But Silverman was serious about his music. Schwartz recalls the 12-year-old violinist coming to lessons having read Mozart symphonies in their full orchestral scores. He would enter Schwartz's studio, chirping enthusiastically about all the ingenious ways the Salzburg composer had connected his ideas. Call it professional courtesy: It was a classic case of one prodigy admiring the work of another.
Silverman was also intent on mastering the Sibelius concerto. "We worked on that piece a lot when he was about 13 or 14," Schwartz says. "He loved that piece, and finding just the right interpretation became his mission." Not surprisingly, Silverman did conquer that work. Schwartz credits Silverman's success to his unusually mature musicianship.
"Tracy had an appreciation for sound quality and color that really distinguished him from all the other students his age," Schwartz says. "He also had unusually strong musical opinions, something that was really rare for pre-college level violinists. I truly believed that there was absolutely nothing he couldn't do as a musician."
Schwartz and Silverman eventually parted company. The 17-year-old virtuoso continued to follow his (perceived) destiny, heading to New York City to enroll in the famed Juilliard School. Schwartz left Chicago and moved to Oakland. There, she struck up a friendship with an up-and-coming San Francisco-based composer named John Adams. Her close association with both Adams and Silverman would one day give this otherwise unassuming violin teacher an oversized role in the history of contemporary American music.
At Juilliard, Silverman was considered a big talent, but he was no longer singular. He certainly wasn't in Beloit anymore. The conservatory's practice rooms were filled with future fiddle stars, from the wildly eccentric Nigel Kennedy to the elegantly refined Robert McDuffie. Some aspects of the Juilliard experience were priceless — for instance, Silverman got to study with the legendary teacher Ivan Galamian, whose roster of students included everyone from Dorothy Delay to Itzhak Perlman. But from the beginning, there was at least one thing about the Juilliard environment that Silverman didn't like.
"I felt that there was too much emphasis on technique and perfection," Silverman says. "I knew violinists and pianists who were spending eight or more hours a day in their practice rooms. Sometimes, you felt more like you were competing in the Olympics than making music."
Silverman also began sensing another problem with classical music. Stuck on the summit of Mt. Olympus, the art form seemed to lack a certain relevancy to the contemporary world. Outside the hallowed halls of Juilliard, Silverman had a hard time finding anyone his age who listened to classical music. How could he blame them? So much of the music seemed mired in the distant past.
His low point came one day when he was searching Schwann Opus — a back catalog of published classical recordings — for a specific version of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. To his chagrin, he found that the piece had been recorded many times — 57 versions were listed.
"I realized at that moment that I didn't want to spend the rest of life doing what had already been done time and time again," he says.
When Silverman graduated from Juilliard, he put his acoustic violin back in its case and left classical music. He wouldn't return to the genre for another 22 years, when America's most influential classical composer finally sought him out.
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