Betty Duffy

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Becoming More Human

Celebrity cellist, Yo-Yo Ma performed with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this week. Tickets sold out many months in advance, so sitting at home rather than in concert finery, I’ve been inclined to read the reviews. Raving positive, they can only be, or Indianapolis may never see such a headliner again, but our local classical music reviewer (I’ll call him J.) went above and beyond his superlative duty and labeled the event “special.”

He went on to describe, with intricate detail, Ma’s interpretation of The Dvorak Cello Concerto in B Minor; how he blended with woodwinds in a second movement cadenza, echoed a horn theme in the first, and accompanied the flute with his beyond-other-worldly bow control.

For a minute, just one little minute, I thought to myself:

Who in Indianapolis, Indiana, besides J. himself, and one or two nerds (myself included—but just barely) could possibly care about what Yo-Yo Ma did with a second movement cadenza? And what did J. do? Sit there with his own copy of the sheet music in his lap to see, “Oh, here, Ma needs to play ‘ma non troppo.’ Will he do it? Yes!” Nobody here cares about classical music anymore. And if Yo-Yo Ma is on their radar, it’s probably just to say, “Hey Yo Mama is here!”

But maybe I had that thought because I have gradually lost interest in classical music. Why? Because it’s difficult. I have never been able to understand or appreciate a piece of classical music until I have played it. I do have to hold the sheet music in my lap while I listen, and read or play along. Interpreting classical music is a bit like reading a big fat classic novel, like War and Peace. You have to get over the desire to reach the end of it, and learn to appreciate each word, each sentence, each theme for what it is. You have to have patience and concentration, which is something I have gradually lost.

I admit, I know this J. I played in a youth symphony with his son, also a cellist, when I was in high school. His son (I’ll call him T.), sat first stand with a lanky Polish boy on whom I had my first major unrequited crush. But T himself was a classic, textbook nerd. He wore coke-bottle glasses, had a shaggy head of greasy hair, and bountiful zits which he used to rub with the tip of his bow. He was home-schooled and didn’t watch TV, though sometimes he said, they borrowed films from the library. He could recite in chronological order, with incredible speed, every ascendant to the Czarist Russian throne, and he did so at least once a rehearsal.

I sat behind him, fourth chair, sharing a stand with a pudgy, dark-skinned boy named Darius. Darius and I were like a couple of puppies poking and prodding the two serious musicians at the stand in front of us. When T eventually grew irritated, he would turn his entire body around without moving his neck to glare out of his coke-bottle glasses like a pre-pubescent Dracula. In short, he was the model of patience and concentration, and the living artifact of an eccentric, intellectual education. Oh, to be a fly on the wall in his home! To be the son of local classical music reviewer, J., who believes that certain cadenzas are beyond special!

I say all of this a little tongue in cheek, because I was, am, and ever shall be envious of what I do not have, and what I did not have in high school was a life built on aural appreciation. Music was always my hobby, something I did that was different from everyone else at school. I had enough aptitude to get by, make the cut, but never enough patience and concentration to make music my life.

As a member of the cello section in this particular state-wide youth orchestra, we received complimentary tickets to hear the last celebrity cellist who came through Indianapolis over fifteen years ago, Mstislav Rostropovich. If my memory serves me correctly, he played the same piece that Ma did this weekend. During the intermission of that concert, I made my move on the lanky Polish boy who occupied the first stand of the cello section, and he brushed me off, quickly, because the lights were beginning to dim, and he didn’t want to “miss a note.”

His father was a first generation Polish immigrant, founder of a local violin competition, and yet another classical music aesthete, who would sit on his couch in the middle of the day listening to obscure recordings. When we walked through his living room, he would say, “Young people, sit down and listen to this recording! It’s sublime!” and throw back his head on the couch, smiling at the ceiling and swinging his leg, crossed over his knee. That love is what I never had—the desire to sit and do nothing else but listen to complicated music, to read it like a novel, to enjoy every note.

Now I go for walks and listen to the ipod which is filled with a lot of classical music, a lot of folk, a lot of rock, and a bit of country. I set it on “shuffle” and skip song after song that appears on the screen. “No. Not that. Can’t tolerate this one right now. Does not match my mood.” Music must serve me by sustaining desired feelings or changing undesirable ones. And it had better not challenge me, because my life is challenging enough.

It’s sad.

It’s sad because it is yet another sign of my insistence on making everything I touch, see, hear, taste, or smell reflect my emotions and my experience. And it is another sign of how almost all technological gadgetry has the ability to foster narcissism.

I’ve been trying something this week—something I should have done long ago—which is severely limiting my time on the computer. Write with a pen and paper. Listen to music that requires patience and concentration. Read a book, even if it is one I’ve already read, and value every word. Share other people’s experiences, even those that make me uncomfortable or exhausted. This because I want to be more human, less technologically enthralled, and less dependent on the highs that technology somehow mysteriously provides for me. I wonder, if becoming less the master of my sensory environment would provide me with more dependence on God, and if my failures in patience and concentration are at the root of my current difficulties with prayer. I want to care about how Yo-Yo Ma blends with the woodwinds in the second-movement cadenza, because that is such a definitively human concern.


Pentimento said...

Well, I think it is so, so cool that J. knows and loves the Dvorak Cello Concerto so much that he is familiar with the cadenzas that Yo-Yo Ma used. Now I want to know more: did Ma write those cadenzas himself? Or are they part of the canonical repertoire of cello concerto cadenzas? As you probably know, I am every bit as much of a total nerd as J., not to mention his son.

But the reason for my total nerdhood -- and perhaps J.'s too? -- is that early on I discovered that classical music was -- for me -- a language beyond language, a language that could express those ineffable things past the point at which the spoken or written word inevitably fails. I felt very fortunate to be a singer -- the marriage of music and poetry was sheer heaven to me. I got grounded for sneaking out to hear an art song recital when I was fifteen. Classical music was everything to me for most of my life (you probably know that I had -- still have -- a small career as a performer and that I recently got my Doctor of Musical Arts degree in voice performance). But that's because, to quote those retch-inducing tote bags that the nerdiest members of your youth orchestra probably carried, music is my bag. I dare say that writing is yours.

It's true that innovations in portable electronics have increased our cultural narcissism and have also tended to isolate us more and more from one another, and from experiences like Yo-Yo Ma's concert, which many eschew because it's so much easier to sit home in sweats and program one's own soundtrack. Even in New York people in my own family used to ask me how one went about going to the opera, as if anyone couldn't call the box office and get a ticket (a much cheaper ticket, by the way, than going to a sports event). And going to a concert also can be anxiety-provoking, since so few of us know the canonic classical repertoire anymore since music appreciation is virtually non-existent in elementary and secondary education. Most people won't know what a cadenza is, let alone which ones Ma played, and that produces a kind of furtive sense of cultural inferiority.

One of the things that's crucially important to me as a musician and teacher is the importance of getting the message out that classical music is . . . crucially important. What else can give us a deeper collective sense of our humanity in the same way? What else can demonstrate without a word the heights of the human soul, the depths of the human spirit? In the past few years I've gone more into a lecture-recital format for this reason. What I really love is to present intimate concerts in small halls where I can really connect with the audience. In fact, in my new home town in Appalachia, I'm going to be doing just this: I'm starting a concert series that's being hosted in people's homes, which has long been a dream of mine.k

Pentimento said...

Part II of my comment (it was too long to be accepted, sorry!):

Jung wrote in more than one place that everything we touch does in fact reflect our inner being. I always imagined that the pattern of raindrops on the car window when you drove on a rainy day would reflect, if you could read them, some crucial reality about your unconscious. In fact, based on this premise, I used to read my friends' Turkish coffee grounds back when I didn't realize that doing such things was, well, a sin.

I'm guessing you must have access to some good classical music stations there. Do you get Bloomington's? Classical radio has been a great source of pleasure for me, and, totally unlike the iPod, you never know what you're going to hear when you turn it on, but you can be sure that when you do, you're becoming part of an invisible community of listeners. I love that sense of secret sharing in an experience of beauty. And it's possible that what you hear, as I've written about on my own blog, will have as much meaning to you or more as anything on your iPod. Probably more, because Someone Else who knows and loves you allowed you to hear it along with your invisible radio-listening friends.

My old voice teacher, the great African-American mezzo-soprano Barbara Conrad, had been close friends with Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Sheen in fact brought her into the Catholic Church. In the early days of her career, Barbara was singing the title role in Carmen at New York City Opera, and there was lots of backbiting backstage. The Archbishop came to a rehearsal, and Barbara told him she just wanted to quit. He said, "You must never do that, because you will not know when your singing might make the difference between life and death for someone in the audience."

I think of that often, and that we must all live our lives -- singing, writing, and all of the maddening mundane things -- in that same spirit. Personally, I believe Yo-Yo Ma does. I have a wonderful vintage video of him on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, which shows that, in addition to being a genius player, he is one great guy.

Pentimento said...

I read this poem on Karen Edmisten's blog today, and it reminded me of your post -- "The Writer" by Richard Wilbur.

Emily J. said...

Love the memories of the youth symphony characters! And thanks to Pentimento for the educational and stirring comments - I wouldn't want to debate the primacy of music among the arts with you! Just watched Shine last night and wondered if it were trying the Shostakovich too young or his father or something inherent in genuises that caused David's collapse.

Also like the comment on the connection between narcissism and technology. A struggle in particular for bloggers?

Betty Duffy said...

Dear P,
I hope you post your comments at your blog too, because they are so, so interesting. A post in themselves.

You talk about the language beyond language that classical music expresses, at which the written word fails. I will only partially agree with that statement. Agreed on the classical music front, but I think the written word does not “inevitably” fail—but only mostly fails in incompetent hands (like mine). But I have read some writing that, in what it does not say, speaks that language beyond language.

I love what you’re doing in your community to make classical music more accessible. I think that the need for “music appreciation” class in general is indicative of a major cultural backslide, one of the ways in which progress has really not been progress at all—that these forms of expression have lost their venue and threaten to become extinct—talking about your parlor recital, here. Had this thought tonight when my kids wanted to hear a poem by James Whitcomb Riley, one I happened to have memorized because a grade school teacher insisted on memorization. I was thinking about how the art of oration, too, has lost its footing—because the need for that type of entertainment has been replaced by technological entertainments, that as you say, keep people home, alone, in their sweats mastering their sensory environments.

The more I “Choose” the less I share with others, and the less I receive. I do get Bloomington’s radio stations here, and I think your point about not knowing what you’re going to hear on the radio is a good one. I think it does reflect a truism about life in general, that there are things one cannot control, and I want to be that cork floating on the waves that is content to move wherever God wills I move. And I want to be in communication with the world around me. I think that if we considered the concert hall a place where people go to share experience and to communicate with one another, rather than a place to which the elite go for esoteric entertainments, we would soon lose that furtive sense of cultural inferiority. But choice is a tyrannical master, and my habitual choice to remain comfortable usually leaves me paddling my boat in inefficient circles. This is why I have ultimately become a struggling music appreciator rather than a struggling musician.

I find recently that my faith in music, my faith in the written word—this idea that it is a matter of life and death for some people, including myself—is at times subject to doubt. I’m glad Fulton Sheen says so, and that you say so too, so I’m going to rest on the side of faith tonight.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

It’s sad because it is yet another sign of my insistence on making everything I touch, see, hear, taste, or smell reflect my emotions and my experience. And it is another sign of how almost all technological gadgetry has the ability to foster narcissism.

Wow, that's a very interesting point. I'd never thought of that, but I think you're really onto something. I'll be thinking about that this week during my technology fast.

Thanks for a great post! Just linked to it.

Robert said...

My thought is far less ..... thoughtful. The visit of YYM to indy was a dream come true for my baby sister (16). She is a soph at NC and has played cello since she was three. She used to fall asleep to the sound of yym playing on her little pink cd player when she was 5. She got to meet him during his visit and wrote me o the other side of the world to say her life was changed ;)

Pentimento said...

Yo-Yo Ma is in the highest pantheon of artists. But he is also a really great guy. Everyone I know who's ever met him or worked with him says that. I think the people who are the best in their field are usually the kindest, most generous, and most sincere, too. I don't know if that holds true for, say, investment banking, but it's truly been my experience in music.

Betty Duffy said...

Robert, thanks for the comment. ADorable to picture your sister with her little CD player, and I'm glad to hear that Ma's visit to INdy was so well appreciated.

P, I've heard such good things about Ma's character as well. KNew a family in Boston whose kids went to school with his kids, and not only was he a very involved and approachable parent, but also put on philanthropic concerts for the school. Imagine!

Jen, thanks for the link, and enjoy your technology fast. I'm considering going to similar lengths...but not yet.

Emily, blogging and narcissism do go hand in hand, and I'm not sure how to get around that--as almost any kind of writing can lead you down the same rabbit hole. Had to can a post last week that was altogether too self-indulgent.

lissla lissar said...

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
-T.S. Eliot, East Coker

My husband and I have been talking, on and off, about the way that communal singing and communal music has disappeared. It lingers in church, but my mother says that music as a social activity, not as a performance, has vanished within her lifetime. When she was a kid getting together with family or friends, they'd sing together. Now it's exclusively left up to the professionals, except for hymns. Ditto reading aloud and recitation. We're lucky in having a small group of friends who still recite and read aloud.

That sort of loss spurs on my living-in-a-small-house-in-the-woods hermit fantasies.

Robert said...

"Robert" is/was Justyn. Depends on who last logged in ;)

Betty Duffy said...

lissla, With the invention of the internet, even the small house in the woods concept has lost its luster. mm, unless you cancel your connection or go completely off the grid.

Jus! the mystery is solved.

Pentimento said...

I would go out of my mind with loneliness in that small house, I fear. We're looking at houses right now and I get horribly depressed when the realtor takes us to a neighborhood with no sidewalks, even if the houses are right next to each other.

Pentimento said...

Betty, check out the post about Beethoven that I just linked to. I think you will find it resonates with the dilemmas of classical music and becoming more human.

Betty Duffy said...

P, I read it last night but didn't have time to leave a comment, but it did fit right into this discussion. I loved it, even flattered myself to think that you might have linked that for my benefit.

Loved this quote:
Classical music is different in that it doesn’t tell us very much at all, it instead appeals to totally abstract ideas of time and form. It asks questions rather than offers answers, and so does not appeal to all, but its appeal is enduring since it’s always an intriguing, often beautiful mystery to solve. We never actually find the solution, but there is marvelous pleasure in the process.

Pentimento said...

I actually was going to note in my post that I was linking to it for you! But it also spoke to certain concerns of mine, so I thought I'd keep it more universal.

TS said...

I was reading Richard Brookhiser's memoir in which he called William F. Buckley a narcissist while recognizing that tendency in himself and I thought, "wow. A narcissist reading a narcissist calling someone else a narcissist."

It's in the air these days, 'eh?

Betty Duffy said...

TS, Then I guess that makes me a narcissist reading a comment from a narcissist who read about a narcissist calling someone else a narcissist. But maybe we're not all as bad as we think we are. I like to think of it as my brand of original sin.

Pentimento said...

My three-year-old is familiar with Yo-Yo Ma from the vintage Mister Rogers video I mentioned above, which features a segment with Ma at Joe Negri's music shop. Ma plays and talks about the music, and also about his son, Nicholas. Because of this, my son thinks Yo-Yo Ma's name is Nicholas. If he happens to hear cello music on the radio, he says, "It sounds like Nicholas."

lissla lissar said...

I would also go out of my mind (I'm a city girl), but many parts of technocracy make a small Iron Age village or hermitage in the woods seem very attractive.

Besides, our housemate and I joke that between us we have enough outdated skills to run one.