Music and cycling, in harmony

By | October 31st, 2013 | No Comments
Alex Chaleff

Alex Chaleff: “Whenever I finish a performance or ride, I always feel, even if I’ve started and ended in the same place, that I’ve changed as a result.”

You may not think classical music and bike riding have much in common, but the two will harmonize during Cycling Night at the New World Symphony on Friday, Nov. 8, which will include a group bike ride, a 30-minute concert by the symphony, and the premiere of the film ‘Bicycle Dreams’ on the New World Center’s 7,000 square foot projection wall (full details). Ahead of the event, New World Symphony violinist and avid cyclist Alex Chaleff describes the intertwined and transformational impact that music and cycling have on his life. — Editor’s note

The other week, New World Symphony conductor and 11-time Grammy Award winner Michael Tilson Thomas began the morning’s rehearsal by asking the members of our orchestra, “When do you generate your musical ideas?” Since this is an unorthodox way of beginning a rehearsal and because of the question’s open-ended nature, we were at first hesitant to reply, unsure of what he was driving at. After a minute or two, the answers started trickling in from various players and proved to be more surprising than the question itself. A violinist said she was most inspired while she was doing the dishes, a bassoonist claimed his greatest artistic insights occurred while riding a bike, and MTT said most of his ideas came to him while he was cooking. Not a single person said that their musical inspirations were generated while playing their instrument. The underlying and unexpected truth that emerged was that most of our creative thoughts are formulated while our minds are occupied with some other activity, thereby liberating our subconscious to explore and experiment with new ideas.

The musicians of the New World Symphony were not the first to realize this fact. Albert Einstein famously claimed of his Theory of Relativity, “I thought of that while riding a bicycle.” And in a more recent interview, Adrian Newey, the leading designer of Formula 1 race cars, when asked where his ideas came from, replied, “Sometimes in the shower!… If I get stuck I walk away and do something else and quite often subconsciously, the brain seems to work away and an idea will pop up.”

I have been riding bicycles for longer than I can remember and began racing about five years ago. I often ride as much as 20 hours per week, and it is in those hours of freedom and solitude that I ruminate about music, art, and life. Riding started out as a way of balancing the stress and rigor inherent in the life of an aspiring violinist, but the more I became involved in both activities, the more parallels I noticed between the two.

Music and cycling don’t share many physical likenesses, yet the methods employed to master each one are eerily similar. For example, when I am preparing for a race, I first target a race that suits my strengths as a rider and work backwards to devise a training plan. I know I need a certain number of weeks to conjure the fitness necessary to be competitive and start out slowly with many hours of low intensity riding to build a solid aerobic base. Once that is achieved, I move onto doing shorter intervals at greater intensity that mirror the efforts I know I’ll have to make during the race. Finally, a few weeks before the target race, I’ll participate in some actual races to put the finishing touches on my form. Throughout the whole process I record data from my rides such as heart rate and power outputs so I can track the changes in my fitness.

The process for preparing for a concert or audition is virtually identical. I start with the date of the performance and work backwards. For a typical orchestra audition, I like to give myself six weeks to prepare. I’ll start out by practicing very slowly and carefully, making sure I’m playing all the right notes with good sound, intonation, rhythm, and phrasing so I build up a solid base. Gradually I’ll start increasing the tempo of the pieces until I can play each piece flawlessly at final tempo. I then start to do run-throughs of the program, or mock auditions to replicate the sensations of performing as closely as possible, all the while recording myself so I can track my progress. It may sound simple enough on paper, but in practice the pursuit of excellence in either discipline is a grueling endeavor that requires one to spend many hours alone pushing one’s limits to the next level. Sustaining such high intensity work for months and years requires focus, discipline, and perseverance. I feel that the personal qualities I’ve acquired from training for races have without doubt helped me prepare for auditions and vice versa.

But the same could be said about almost any sport and any other seemingly unrelated activity. Where cycling and music are most similar lies in how they unfold in the space-time continuum. Music, unlike most other art forms, such as painting or sculpture, cannot be perceived all at once. When viewing a painting, all of the composition’s elements are available for observation simultaneously. With one glance, a viewer can observe the painting in its entirety.

Music, however, reveals itself to the listener in a linear fashion. Notes sound one after the other, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of harmonies that build upon one another from one moment to the next. Each note’s meaning is determined by those that preceded it while its significance is decided by those that follow it. Each note’s structural importance in the overall architecture of the piece can only be comprehended after hearing the composition straight through from beginning to end. One might reason that the score, a book of all the notes in a piece, enables the artist to perceive the work in its entirety much like a reader does a novel, however since music is something that is ultimately heard and not viewed, it’s a flawed argument. The listener cannot hear the beginning, middle, and end of a piece of music at the same time, nor can he aurally review certain parts up close and in detail at his leisure. Music flows through time in its own time, called a tempo, from one part to the next, giving it a uniquely narrative quality. All the listener can do is follow the notes as they appear and vanish before him one after the other into thin air.

Road bike racing progresses in similar fashion. Unlike more mainstream sports like basketball, baseball, hockey, and football, where all the players and their actions are confined to a field or court of relatively small dimensions that can be viewed in its entirety by a spectator, cycling transpires over vast expanses of varied terrain that are too large to be confined to a stadium for convenient viewing (track racing is a notable exception). A spectator standing on the side of the road as the peloton whizzes past is only observing one very small part of a much larger event. Even when viewed on TV, the multitudes of cameras mounted on the accompanying motorbikes and helicopters are never enough to film all 200 or so riders at once.

From a participant’s perspective, bike racing is also like music in the way that it actually happens in real time. As the peloton glides down the road, its composition is continuously changing and shifting depending on the external forces that dictate the progress of the race, such as terrain, wind, and gravity. Different teams within the peloton have varying agendas, such as chasing down a breakaway or favorably positioning their captain, and employ their riders accordingly, creating a group of entities, much like the notes in music, which are constantly presenting themselves at the front of the peloton and then receding back into its folds once their task has been accomplished. My coach always told me, “In the peloton, you’re either moving up or you’re moving back. Nothing is static.” At any two points in a race, the composition of the peloton, and of the race at large, will be completely different.

Cycling, a point to point affair, contains a similar narrative quality to music. Each race progresses from beginning to middle to end at its own tempo, just the way a piece of music does, as if it is telling a story. Cycling and music never are, rather, they are always becoming. The ultimate purpose of both is to reveal truth. A race starts in one city and continuously unravels itself across valleys and over mountains until it unfurls its final meter and the truth of who the best rider is laid bare for all to see. A piece of music takes its listener on a similar journey, presenting its main theme or melody and then probing and developing its meaning until it eventually arrives at its final destination, when the composer feels satisfied he has imparted the truth of what he is expressing to his audience.

There are also similarities between specific pieces and the races themselves. To me, the Grand Tours of France, Italy, and Spain have always possessed an operatic quality. They all unfold over long periods of time and feature a varied cast of colorful, if not high strung, characters whose complex relationships shape the race or plot. In a Grand Tour, every stage is like an aria, featuring a different group of characters selected by the terrain covered, who cooperate or compete with one another and based on what transpired in the previous stages and in turn shape the plot of the stages yet to come. These stages or arias often are capable of standing alone in terms of their beauty and drama, but when strung together over three weeks, they weave a tapestry so ornate and complex, it’s impossible to decipher unless you’ve been following each strand from the beginning, making their conclusions all the more stunning and grand. The one day “Classics” like Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, are similarly beautiful and dramatic, but possess a drive and urgency to them that makes them more akin to a Richard Strauss tone poem like “Don Juan” or “Ein Heldenlaben.” Both are usually heroic narratives that drive relentlessly all the way to their respective conclusions. Unlike in the operatic Grand Tours, the Classics and tone poems leave their participants with little or no time for rest or consideration, constantly increasing their dramatic tensions until they run out of road or notes.

Whenever I finish a performance or ride, I always feel, even if I’ve started and ended in the same place, that I’ve changed as a result. Since both are journeys of discovery, I always feel that I’ve acquired some knowledge of myself or of a greater truth of which I was previously unaware.

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