By David Templeton | From the May-June 2022 issue of Strings magazine
When the celebrated electric violinist Tracy Silverman invited Puerto Rican composer Roberto Sierra to write a major new concerto for him, he included a bit of a warning with his invitation. “I said, ‘I’m not the typical violin soloist you would normally write a piece for,’” Silverman recalls during a mid-morning Zoom conversation in late February. “I warned Roberto that what I do is different in two fundamental ways. The first is that I play a six-string electric violin. The other thing is that I play the violin differently than most other violinists. I play the violin in a very guitar-like manner, like rock ’n’ roll guitar, which is all about my acknowledging the vernacular of our contemporary popular musical culture—rock, hip-hop, jazz—all the music that surrounds us every day in our contemporary musical culture. My sound is very rich, and it’s full of a lot of noise between the notes. It has its own contemporary rhythms and styles, which are quite different from classical music, which carries the vernacular of music from 100 or 200 years ago.”
Sierra did not simply accept the challenge. He decided to return the favor, beginning work on a complex, four-movement concerto based on a short story by the late, great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges. Sierra sent Silverman a copy of Borges’ Collected Fictions, suggesting that he would choose his inspiration from the stories in the book. “I liked the idea of the concerto having a storyline,” says Silverman. “I dug it because when you have a well-written story, people want to see how it ends, right? And when you approach a new piece of music, especially one that lasts 20 minutes or so, I think people like to have something to hold on to, and the suggestion of a story provides that. I had no idea which stories Roberto would pick, but after a while, he came back and said, ‘You know what? I don’t want to base this piece of music on one story. I’m going to pick four short stories and use one for each movement.”
The first story Sierra selected is one of Borges’ most famous—“The Aleph.” “It’s about one point that contains the entire universe, a phenomenon a guy discovers under the stairs in his basement,” explains Silverman succinctly. “Another one is about a fictitious planet called Tlön, which has a whole other universe of knowledge. These are very metaphysical stories, the stories of Borges. The third one is called ‘Asterion,’ and it’s about a minotaur who murders these people but has no concept of good or bad—he’s just a minotaur. Those three movements are written. The fourth one, which Roberto is just starting—we had a meeting about it yesterday—is a movement based on ‘The Immortal,’ a great story about a man who drinks from the stream of everlasting life and meets Homer 1,200 years after he’s written The Odyssey. It’s a wonderful story. Anyway, that’s going to be the last movement in the concerto, which Roberto has titled Ficciones, or ‘Fictions.’”
And is Ficciones turning out to be as significant a challenge as suspected?
“Oh, my goodness yes. Oh yes!” says Silverman. “Some of the tempos Roberto has put on the pieces he’s sending me are just lightning fast. I’ve got some very difficult passagework in front of me. There is going to be a lot of practicing in my immediate future, I can assure you of that.” The premiere of the piece, which was commissioned by a consortium of orchestras and symphonies, will take place in June. “So pretty much all of April and May will be me just focusing on this piece.”
Among the world’s most passionate advocates for giving what he calls “concert-hall legitimacy” to the electric violin, Silverman has played with the Turtle Island String Quartet and has appeared on an array of national platforms including A Prairie Home Companion, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, and Performance Today. His fans include Pulitzer- and Grammy-winning composer John Adams, who once said, “No one makes that instrument sing like Tracy.” He is the author of several books, including The Strum Bowing Method: How to Groove on Strings.
Other composers Silverman has collaborated with include Terry Riley, Nico Muhly, Kenji Bunch, and the aforementioned Adams. A graduate of Juilliard and a lifetime fan of classical music—“it’s my first love,” he says—Silverman has nevertheless championed alternative approaches to music that incorporate contemporary ideas. “That has been my whole mission in life,” Silverman says, “to play the violin in a way that is relevant to our current popular musical culture.”
It’s a large part of why he’s so drawn to composers who share his belief that music is a living thing that must be allowed to evolve. “I’ve worked closely with John Adams and very closely with Terry Riley,” Silverman says. “I’m just trying to get great composers to show people that this is not just an electric violin. Yes, you can do a lot of what I do on an acoustic violin, though I like to use a lot of effects and distortion and stuff, which requires an electric. My message is this: Our contemporary musical vernacular has a lot of electronics involved in it—whether it’s rock or hip-hop or whatever—so let’s write string music for that!”
Clearly, a collaboration with Sierra was bound to happen eventually. Winner of the 2003 Academy Award in Music presented by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he has written a comprehensive repertoire of compositions premiered by some of the most prominent players, festivals, and orchestras in the world. In the United States, these include orchestras in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Houston, Detroit, San Antonio, and Phoenix. Internationally, Sierra’s compositions have been premiered by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich, and in Spain with the orchestras of Madrid, Galicia, Castilla y León, and Barcelona.
This is hardly Sierra’s first time writing a concerto based on works of fiction. His Concierto Barroco was inspired by writer Alejo Carpentier’s novel of the same name. In the book, the composers George Frideric Handel and Antonio Lucio Vivaldi meet a Cuban slave during the Venice Carnival and end up spontaneously playing together. Sierra’s concerto, commissioned by renowned guitarist Manuel Barrueco, was a musical attempt to imagine what that jam session might have sounded like.
“I just love Roberto’s style and his whole approach,” Silverman says, “specifically how he incorporates Latin rhythms into his stuff. I am very attracted to Roberto’s ability to incorporate that contemporary vernacular, which is why I originally approached him about writing something for me.”
There was, of course, the little matter of that six-string violin Silverman plays. “Composing this piece would mean writing for an instrument he’s never written for,” Silverman acknowledges, “and fortunately he welcomed that.”
Silverman began building electric six-string violins in 1981, initially working with Mark Wood of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The instrument he currently plays is the culmination of 30 years of designing and building. It’s got two extra lower strings, which allow Silverman to play the violin more like an electric guitar.
“In the rock ’n’ roll bands I played with early on, it took me 10 years to develop the style I now use, which really does sound like an electric guitar, but better, because the bow is an amazing tool for getting all the sound you can from a stringed instrument,” says Silverman. That sound, with its heightened percussive elements and a crunchy, gritty style that evokes the feel of a heavy-metal stadium rocker, has given Sierra extra musical bells and whistles to play with.
“We both knew Roberto would need to figure out how to write for my somewhat different style of playing, and that would take some time and effort,” Silverman says. “Our solution, our way of working with these differences, is that we get together once a week on Zoom, and have a little check-in. He sends me the latest draft of new measures, and I play it for him and maybe show him some alternatives of how I can play it—some different effects and bowings I can use, possibly slightly different fingerings, or things like that—to give him some options. I play it for him, demo it up, and send it back to him. He adjusts his composition if necessary or makes certain choices—and that’s how it goes. It’s been a very collaborative process, working on this with him.”
The mutual commitment to take this project as a challenge has resulted in some fascinating fusions of the literary and the musical, explains Silverman. “In the piece about the minotaur,” he says, offering one example, “it starts with all of the notes, and by the end of the movement there is only one note remaining, so Roberto is, little by little, removing notes from the piece, which is suggested by what happens in the story between the minotaur and these people he encounters.”
Asked if playing a piece in which notes begin vanishing from the composition is a challenge, Silverman laughs, nodding, his eyes wide in wordless amazement. “It’s very challenging for me, because it’s really intellectually interesting, but I also have to turn it into something that performs well, and that’s on me, because the work itself is just wonderful,” he says.
With one more movement still to be completed, Silverman is looking ahead to the piece’s premiere at Lincoln Center on June 5, where Ficciones will be performed with the lead commissioner of the work, the American Symphony Orchestra. The other members of the commissioning consortium are the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio (with which Silverman will perform the piece on January 22, 2023), the Vermont Symphony (February 4, 2023), the Meridian Symphony (March 4, 2023), and the Richmond Symphony Youth Orchestra (May 14, 2023).
Asked if he will be thinking of the stories each movement is based on as he performs Ficciones, taking a trip through time and space along with the music, Silverman’s response begins and ends with another laugh and a broad, almost mischievous smile. “Who knows? I hope so,” he says, “because that means I will know the music well enough to not be thinking about it so hard, note by note. But on some level, sure, telling the story through the music will be part of my job, so I’ll have those stories in my mind as I play. They’re pretty great stories, too.”