The viola, sometimes called the violet, possesses the unusual capacity to mask it's scent. It releases a ketone component known as ionone which desensitizes nasal receptors, effectively making it nose-invisible.
The little flower shares its name with a stringed instrument of the same name, namely the viola, an instrument that many wish would also learn to mask its odor. The stringed viola is, sadly, oft scorned and ridiculed; If Satan plays the violin, it is presumably some short, ugly and mentally challenged step-demon who plays the viola. Orchestra members routinely swap occasionally slightly humorous jokes behind the violists' backs, and then get all quiet and awkward once the violist turns around. Why this should be struck the crack team at TFGTSI as something of a mysterious, so we assigned several interns to interview prominent violists and quiz them about their instrument's troubled reputation. Their findings, along with some audio samples, follow.
Carla Kihlstedt has been known not only to play real pretty in her Tin Hat, but has also applied the viola to the proggy arty gothy deathy rock band Sleepytime Gorilla Museum. She explained to us that "things of a truer and more humble beauty make people nervous. People tend to make jokes when they get nervous." This track comes from her 2005 Tzadik album Two Foot Yard.
The research team had great difficulty tracking down Mat Maneri, who apparently hates the internet the way most people hate violas. When asked for his email or website address, he said sourly "just call me." He was, however, happy to expound on why the viola is the butt of so many jokes. "It should be," he said. Here's one of his earlier viola recordings, from the 2005 Leo disc Chamber Trio.
Ladonna Smith was a part of the early downtown NY scene before heading back to Alabama. Along with the viola, she plays violin and dances on big wooden boxes. She told Perfect Sound Forever that the viola can make "just as bizarre of noises and glissandi's as the ARP2600, and it was a lot easier to haul around than synthesizers, B3's and Leslies." When asked why violas are so often made fun of, she asked us, "Why do frogs come in so many beautiful colors?" Here's a track from her Table of the Elements LP Rare Earth.
Back in those early downtown days, Ladonna used to play with Eugene Chadbourne, who also bailed out and headed south. More recently, he's employed Spartansburg, SC, violist Eena Ballard, who is now based in Madison, WI, and plays in the country group NoahJohn and a Neil Young tribute band called Shaky. "As for why the viola is the butt of so many jokes," she said, "well, have you ever met a really good violist?" Here she is with Dr. Chadbourne, from the 2001 Chadula release Horror Part Three - X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.
Following the thread, then, Chadbourne has also worked with Jon Rose, a master of alternate-reality-stringed-instrument-theory. More recently, Rose has been bowing barbed wire fences with Hollis Taylor. When asked about viola jokes, Taylor responded "Would the answer itself be a joke or a long, belaboured, earnest sticking-up for the underdog sort of response? Because you dare not bruise the ego of a highly-strung violinist. Because there are significantly fewer violists than violinists, so the chances of getting a good laugh are increased. And, speaking with my violinist hat, violists deserve it!"
Taylor and Rose made an album of traditional fiddle tunes called Infidel, from which this track leaps, featuring Taylor on viola, Rose on tenor violin and Clayton Thomas on bass.
Swiss violist Charlotte Hug's beautiful 1999 record Mauerraum Wandraum makes great use of resonant rooms for her solo recordings, from which the track below comes. She told us that "the viola is so human, much laughter," which we think we understand.
Szilard Mezei hails from Yugoslavia. His second CD, Cerkno, released by Leo at the end of 2007, was recorded at the Cerkno Jazz Festival in Slovenia, May 2006. "I don't know exactly why are there a lot of joke about violists," he said. "I know only that there are really a lot, and they're maybe the best musician jokes. Some of they are about bad instrumental technique, maybe it is because the viola is not a virtuoso instrument like violin, and not as attractive as the violin."
Jessica Pavone is the rare violist for whom it's not just a second instrument. Perhaps that's why she took the subject of our investigation so seriously.
"I think it is because of the role it played traditionally in orchestras and early chamber music," she explained. "Playing the middle voice, nothing soloistic or complicated. It was assumed that those not talented enough to play violin or cello copped-out on the viola. Being someone who has at some time or another played all of the bowed string instruments, I can say that viola is actually in many ways harder than the others (except for double bass which requires great physical strength). It is really heavy and sometimes painful to keep up on your shoulder. Because of its size, it's harder to get around than the violin, harder to play fast, and harder to cut thorough volume-wise because of the size/register ratio in comparison to the other bowed string instruments - much less playing with horns and electric instruments!"
She has recorded with Anthony Braxton and in a duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson, among many other projects. Her new disc, Walking, Sleeping, Breathing, includes a dedication to her teacher Leroy Jenkins and this piece with electronics by Matt Bauder, dedicated to Elizabeth Cotton.
In the end, our intern staff had to throw up its collective hand, lost as to why the viola has fallen to such ill repute. Any further findings will, of course, be added as an addendum to this webulog.