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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 15, No. 8 May 2010

Spikes & Strings: Rachel Barton Pine, Musical Chameleon

by Crystal Chan / May 1, 2010

Flash version here.

Rachel Barton Pine’s packing up after a concert: like many rock musicians, her instrument case is adorned with stickers of her musical heroes—AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Metallica, and Black Sabbath. She’s exhilarated, fuelled by the rush of playing to a mosh pit of screaming, heavy metal fans. Yet, unlike many rock musicians, Pine might well feed off that energy to play a concert the very next day with her historically informed early music and baroque chamber music ensemble, Trio Settecento—or perhaps a concert at Carnegie Hall as a concerto soloist.

Pine is a musical chameleon. She is a world-class classical violinist, early music aficionado, heavy metal rocker, fiddler, occasional jazz and klezmer player, history-making composer, musical educator and philanthropist. And she’s only 35.

A Fast Learner

The Chicago native started violin lessons at age three. She progressed at an astonishing speed: by age seven she made her debut with the Chicago String Ensemble, and by age 10 she was sharing the stage with the Chicago Symphony.

“I was lucky because I was home-schooled from third grade on,” Pine explained. “So the time I had at my disposal to devote towards exploring music was more than most kids who attend traditional school would have had.”

When she was around 12 years old, she started playing with friends who were studying at various universities in her area—Northwestern, Roosevelt, DePaul. She attended pre-college conservatory and finished her formal training when she was 17. “I was able to expedite things,” she said. “I received all my university undergrad and master’s level education during my high school years.”

From Viola da Gamba to Viper

Her homeschooling also allowed more time for exploring music beyond standard violin lesson repertoire. Having less homework, she was able to indulge her developing passion for new instruments and sounds. At 14 she started exploring baroque instruments such as the viola da gamba. She read through a world of chamber repertoire with her friends. She was also introduced to different genres through fiddle camps; she’s taught at Mark O’Connor’s summer fiddle camp since 1997. There, she jams with top Celtic, klezmer, jazz, and country musicians. “It’s incredibly eye-opening to see how many different things can be done on one instrument!” she exclaimed.

Since 2009, Pine has been a member of Earthen Grave, a doom and thrash metal band. In the band she plays the six-string viper created by her friend Mark Wood. The viper is an electronic instrument featuring an extension on the range of a violin by more than an octave and which straps onto the body, “which is perfect for heavy metal,” explained Pine, “because then you can headbang!” Pine compares playing the instrument with playing the six or seven-string baroque viola d’amore, one of her favourite instruments.

The violinist’s philosophy is antithetical to the notion of the musician-specialist, or the musician who becomes an expert on one specific instrument, playing method, genre or repertoire; she believes her diverse musical adventures form a symbiotic relationship with each other. “I think the more you can learn about any kind of music the better a kind of musician you become in all music,” she related. “Classical music is not its own style off in a corner, not relating to anything else. Just as Beethoven used Ländler rhythms and Bartòk used Hungarian folk melodies, here in the 21st century various classical composers are starting to be really inspired by rock music in their art music.”

Playing in Earthen Grave has certainly helped Pine analyze her own musicianship tremendously. There is a much greater live feedback element playing in a band than there is in a classical setting. “That’s been really interesting and educational as a performer,” she claimed. “I’m able to figure out: they’re just kind of standing there, not moving with the beat—what can we be doing to engage them more? Or: here they’re really thrashing around—what are we doing right that we want to be sure to replicate next time? Of course classical is a very different genre than heavy metal; it’s much more sophisticated in terms of its emotional palette. But with every kind of music you still want to connect to the audience on a gut level and have them experiencing the emotions of the music right along with you as intensely as possible. So I feel playing with a heavy metal band has made me a better performer overall.”

The Hard Knock Musical Life

Pine’s self-proclaimed mission in life is to share classical music with as many people as she possibly can. She plays her violin at rock music stations and public schools. She would also like to commission classical pieces that use elements of heavy metal as building blocks—a notion not so far off, as scholars such as Sandy Pearlman, a McGill professor and the man who coined the term ‘heavy metal,’ has already linked the two genres by tracing heavy metal’s roots to late Romantic composers.

Pine’s eponymous foundation to help young artists was inspired by her rough upbringing. “I grew up in a financially struggling household,” Pine explained. “It was always a challenge for us to pay our rent and utilities every month and have enough money for groceries. The idea of trying to pay for music lessons was really out of the question.” Her needs inspired her to work hard so as to continue receiving scholarships and instrument loans. She played weddings and other events to make money for her family, and when she was 16 she took a position with the Grant Symphony Orchestra and subbed for other orchestras in order to save up money.

“It was always a hope that I could pay my piano accompanist, get my bow rehaired, and buy sheet music for the next concerto that I’d been assigned. So I started my foundation to help kids who in a similar situation,” Pine said. “As far as I’m able to tell, we are running the only program of this kind.” The foundation supports aspiring musicians not only through lessons and instrument loans but also by paying for extraneous costs like concert clothes and airfare to competitions. The outreach program is also currently developing a curriculum of music by composers of African-American descent, the first of its kind which hopes to introduce students of all races to important contributors and performers going back to the 1700s. “Classical music is a part of everyone’s culture and heritage,” Pine firmly declared. On top of that, her foundation runs the Global Heart Strings support program for musicians in developing countries—what Pine dubs her “second full-time job.”

The Creative Process

How Pine finds the time and inspiration for all her projects is baffling, but a life-threatening incident in 1995 did put things into perspective. While exiting a Chicago commuter train, the doors closed on the strap to her violin case and Pine was dragged 366 feet before being run over; one of her legs was severed and the other seriously hurt.

She did not let the accident stop her; in fact, Pine launched into her current wildly ambitious path. “My greatest fear is that I don’t get to play all the music I would like to before I have to go,” she explained. A mantra forces her “to be creative, not just re-creative.”

Recent creative projects include composition. In a roundabout way, she fell in love with the art; when forced to write a cadenza for a rediscovered French concerto from the classical period, she realized she had a knack for it. Most recently, she made history when Carl Fischer released a book of her compositions and arrangements as part of its Masters Collection. Pine was the first living composer and first woman to be published as part of the collection.

(c) La Scena Musicale