During their residency at Bowdoin this week, the world-renowned musicians of the Ying Quartet gave a public performance and worked intensively with students, including students exploring subjects other than music. Here, Visiting Writer In Residence Russ Rymer describes the quartet’s visit to his class, Creative Nonfiction Through Photography – a course in which student writers learn to draw from a variety of artistic disciplines to inform their work.
Having the Ying Quartet instruct us and play for us was (in the words of one student asking a question) “an honor.” It was, first of all, an intimate encounter – the quartet called the students out of the audience seats in Studzinski to sit on stage with them, so that we were ten feet from the musicians, and the music. “I’ve never been this close to a string quartet,” one student told them, surprised at how physically animated the act of playing seems close up. At that distance, the quartet becomes not a solid group in concert, but four musicians interacting intensely, and the back and forth of the musical conversation is as head-turning as a tennis match. By the same token, we were face-to-face with Beethoven, and the quartet took us through the first movement of the Opus 74 quartet (which they’d performed on Monday night), teasing apart its elements to show how the cathedral was built, how ideas were introduced and then developed, how the structure worked, how Beethoven created anxiety and mystery and then offered resolution and triumph.
For this particular group of students, that was news they could use. They are studying Creative Nonfiction Through Photography, the point of which is that arts (e.g. photography, writing) are connected in their underlying structures. The quartet’s instruction broadened that same synesthesia to include music. The class is in the crucial final weeks of writing their long magazine-style reported pieces, and the machinery of the Opus 74 gave a road map to the projects they were finishing: how an opening connects with the body of a piece, the use of palpable silence between phrases, the back-and-forth between contrasting ideas, the use of tone and pacing, expectation and surprise. The quartet members were brilliant, I thought, in dissecting all this in a way that was transferable to writing. They were also marvelous in transmitting the sheer joy of the creative experience – their enthusiasm for the process of making music was a morale boost and an encouragement, even as it informed. They are gifted teachers as well as players, drawing us all into their musicianship so that it was no longer quartet and audience, but a collaborative ensemble of 18. When they had spent an hour taking the movement apart, they performed it entire, so that we could indulge in it once again as music, and experience how the attention to every word and phrase adds up at last to a story. I noticed several of my authors lingering afterwards, and the Ying players continuing to discuss with them. I went home thinking I could write.