Journey of 100

If one were to choose one single work that stands out among the rich repertoire for Solo Violin, generation after generation, it could well be the Chaconne by J.S. Bach.  It is a piece that suggests endless depth and profundity.

I am setting out on a journey of discovery: I want to learn how my understanding of this work will develop through the process of performing it 100 times in a row.  These performances will be in normal public venues (the first was at Lincoln Center in May 2012) but also they will be for small groups of interested listeners, colleagues and friends with whom I can explore deeper levels of communication and connectivity. [read more]

Chaconne #38 – Bennington College, August 11, 2017

I am looking forward to re-connecting with this work that I performed last week with the painters in Tim and Lala’s art studio. Tonight is for a few friends, old and new.

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Tonite was one of the performances for which I did not specially prepare, as I have been working hard all week for the Conference.  My focus was to just let go, and allow the piece to play itself, so to speak.   The hall  without people is very resonant, and I found myself just allowing the tones to have lots of time, so the rhythmic framework was quite free.  I am not sure this is good, nor am I sure it is bad.  I also noticed that a few little errors have crept in here and there and they need to be given some “discipline” to get them back in line.

My next step is to find a way to take my playing of the work from where it is now (pretty good) to a much higher level;  how to do that is not yet clear to me.

2 Comments

  1. Karl Doty
    Posted August 12, 2017 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    I just listened to Shem’s 38th Bach performance on his road to 100 in a darkened hall on the campus of Burlington college – 9:30 pm. A light rain began outside during the performance.

    This is an inspired and inspiring project. I tried to come to the concert with no expectations or preconceived ideas of what to listen for.

    With Shem’s dual goals of attaining 100 performances as well as, over time, losing his sense of ‘being the performer’ of the music, you experience that as a performer, Shem is listening with very open and curious ears. Often in performing, Bach’s solo music, we can analyze and affix rigid ideas to passages and the ideas can tend to take center stage while we lose some of our sensitivity to all of the actual sounds of the music in the moment.

    The most special moments of the performance, for me, were the normal, simple music – in between pyrotechnic passagework. This is where the sense of constant patient listening was most thrilling.

    The majority of the performance was listened to with my eyes closed. The music was beautiful and I didn’t think of the performance at all – just listened to the music. I’d say that’s mission accomplished. Thank you, Shem!

  2. Louise A. Lerner
    Posted August 15, 2017 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    Thank you so much, Shem, for giving us the opportunity to share in this journey with you.

    It was interesting to hear the Chaconne in the context of the entire partita (and I particularly liked the third movement) — but nothing even comes close to having the emotional impact of the Chaconne itself.

    I had wondered about the choice of venue, but it turned out to be perfect. Despite the size of the hall, the performance felt very intimate. Sitting there in the dark, with my eyes closed most of the time, I felt surrounded by the power and beauty of the music in the resonance of the hall.

    This music has such majesty, and yet is also so very personal. It gives one hope for the world, even in its current dismal state.

    When I did open my eyes, and watched you standing there barefoot in the spotlight, pouring your heart and soul into your playing, it nearly brought me to tears. This is what music is all about!

    Thank you, Shem, for a beautiful performance and an unforgettable experience!


Chaconne #37 – August 2, Art New England program

A live performance for a session at Art New England, “The Mark and Beyond…” taught by ANE faculty Timothy Hawkesworth and Lala Zeitlyn.

This performance for their painting students, is one in which we explore how the live performance of the Chaconne will facilitate the artists’ access to individual creative places in their own bodies.  (Teaching this access is part of the expertise that Tim and Lala bring to their students).  Performed in their teaching studio at Bennington College, VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) center.

We anticipate that the results of the artists’ work (photos) will be posted here in the blog at the end of this week.  Please check back with us on Sunday August 7th!

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This was a breathtaking experience for me.  The sound of the two studio rooms was something close to perfection, and had a profound influence on my pace of playing the music  – more freedom in time, more freedom in inflecting the music with intensity, with “emptiness”, and colors of sound.  We collected many shots of the artists’ work, and once we get a chance to process them I will share some here.

2 Comments

  1. Pearl Rosenberg
    Posted August 3, 2017 at 2:00 am | Permalink

    Dear Shem,

    It has taken the rest of the day to put verbal language to the experience of drawing with you playing the Chaconne in Lala & Tim’s workshop this morning. The first thrilling moments of the piece seemed to accompany me in my drawing of our very much alive and generous model who was dancing in response to the music—the music of Bach! Inspired by the good fortune to be present for such communion, I pour some drops of water onto my drawing paper and the rich, dark tones of your violin seem to take root within my drawing, making the marks of my sepia crayon move gracefully across the page. But this seemingly easy and blessed beginning was not to be sustained. Although I continue to make numerous quick drawings on multiple pages of my drawing tablet, I am at the same time aware that I am feeling more robot-like in my efforts. I soon become aware that my attention is being pulled between wanting to focus on your performance and needing to focus on my drawing. I proceed to move in closer to the drawing, but almost immediately feel pulled to attend to the music. The push-pull of listening and looking is making it impossible to keep eye, mind, hand, heart, soul and ears in balance. I then see an image in my mind of the un-centered clay beginning to fly off the potter’s wheel. My mind wanders to how the model is doing this, how you, Shem, are doing this, how my studio mates are doing this. At the moment I think I might not want to do this anymore, you move slowly away from where I am drawing in one studio into the connecting studio space, continuing to play your violin as you walk. You and your violin have now “turned the corner”—the music is now in the background and I immediately regret wishing it gone. Shortly after this loss, I realize that the music becomes difficult to “hear” (figuratively now as well as literally), for I am hearing strains of sadness and anxiety in some of the bars. I write in the corner of one small drawing “NO CLOSURE.” The music seems to be on a speeding train making no stops.
    Toward the end of the piece, as if by magic, I become aware that 3 drawings seem to have appeared in my pile. Without even realizing it, I had changed from water crayon to water pencil and now see images that look as if I had merely breathed them into being. Surprisingly, I don’t even remember making them. By focusing on the music once and for all, the drawings just showed up. Tim speaks often of getting out of your own way as an artist in order to “allow for the visitation,” where drawings show up unexpectedly. So thank you for this opportunity to be reminded of this art-affirming practice, as well as the opportunity to co-create with you—a life-affirming practice. Pearl

  2. sgwp_a1
    Posted August 3, 2017 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Pearl thank you for your generous words. The process you describe, of getting out of your own way, sometimes by “passing through” difficult and conflicting thoughts and feelings, is indeed the sort of experience that takes us the the place of empty mind, through which Source can more easily flow.

    I encounter that sort of conflict frequently, as do many musicians, when there is too much mental effort, or too many distracting thoughts as we play. In this performance I felt something like that in the 4th section of music, the Gigue, when I was in the other studio – my mind wanting to control and direct the fingers to make sure I “did it right”. Once I got into the last segment, the Chaconne itself, that disappeared.


Chaconne #36 – July 30, 11:30a Art New England Faculty

A live “test” performance for ANE faculty Timothy Hawkesworth and Lala Zeitlin and a few friends. We are considering a performance for their painting students this week, one in which we explore if the live performance of the Chaconne will facilitate the artists’ access to individual creative places in their own bodies.  (Teaching this access is part of the expertise that Tim and Lala bring to their students).  Tim and Lala want to experience the creative possibilities directly, for themselves, before bringing the opportunity to this week’s class.  Performed in their teaching studio at Bennington College, VAPA (Visual and Performing Arts) center.

My post-performance comments: Well, I am really glad we did this test run today –  playing in the studio along with the sounds of the artists working requires another level of concentration for me.   When the students are there later in the week, as well as the live models,  it will certainly require me  – and inspire me –  to take the music to another level.

We were joined by Larry and Eli, two of Lala’s cousins, artists all.  Images of the work they created during the performance are here, below.

Preparing the music last week, getting ready for this week’s performance, has been difficult.  A large part of me did not want to get emotionally involved with the mood of the music, incredible and inspiring as it is. However, I was able to craft a working method that focussed mostly on my body and the relationship to the violin and bow rather than the emotion of the music.  Seems to have paid off; I will know more about this after the next performance.

Chaconne performance #36 Eli

Chaconne performance #36 Lala Zeitlin

Chaconne performance #36 Larry

Chaconne performance #36 T. Hawkesworth


Chaconne #35 – 7:00pm 2/24/17 Opus Cafe

The third and final Journey of 100 performance sponsored by Hamilton College

3 Comments

  1. Emily
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    The quite, intimate setting of the cafe at night as well as the small group of people closely gathered made for a somewhat solemn and emotional experience. People were mostly lost in their own minds and feelings but the experience overall was incredible. I’d never heard a solo violin played in such a small and comfortable setting before and the experience is not one I’d forget.

  2. nesecan balkan
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Dear Shem,

    I attended Journey of 100 performance # 33 and enjoyed it very much. Thank you!! I preferred to close my eyes as I listened to your gorgeous playing so nothing could come between the sound and my mind. It is such an exquisite experience to be so close by to live playing in that relatively small space. However, I did not want to be distracted by the presence of people and things. I imagined that you were playing on a high cliff looking over the sea and that you just had the blue sky and the sea behind you. The music of Bach carried me over the waves.

    I also attended your evening concert with Sar-Shalom and the beautiful images in the background. That was also a most fantastic experience… I found that during first part of the concert where there were no images, my mind felt as if it was broadening, enlarging as I listened to you my eyes closed. I could only concentrate on the way notes flowed. However, in the second part, when I looked at the images, it seemed as though the music was describing the shapes in these photos. I could not concentrate solely on music but used music to think about what I was seeing.

    Many thanks for coming to Hamilton and giving yourself thoroughly to us to present your incredible sounds. Thanks to Sar-Shalom and Peter as well…

  3. Israel Guibbory
    Posted April 2, 2017 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Shem, I saw your performance of Chaconne at the Explorers’ Club recently in Manhattan. Here are my thoughts: Although every piece has a beginning and end I got lost in the performance and felt as though I was suspended in time. I especially liked the softer passages, they were sensitive and beautiful. It was like you were having a conversation with the music, and the music was responding to your input. Well done, brother.


Chaconne #34 – 3:30pm 2/24/17 Kirkland Public Library

55 1/2 College St, Clinton, NY 13323    (315) 853-2038
The second of three Journey of 100 performances sponsored by Hamilton College

One Comment

  1. library patron
    Posted February 28, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Thank you for sharing your talent! Adding this beautiful piece to the air in a space usually filled with children’s voices was a gift. I liked to close my eyes and imagine the notes floating around the room and touching everyone there. Thank you!