Monday, May 11, 2009

Chow Yun-Fat and the Art of the Cello

My relationship with the cello began with a Kung Fu movie. I was about 14, and a new martial arts epic had just been released in the US with a score by Tan Dun. I went to go see it with my grandmother, of all people. I don’t remember the opening shot, but I will never be able to forget the opening three notes. Tonic, dominant, submediant. Do, Sol, La.

In those days, I didn’t know much about music. I knew the instrument I was hearing was too low to be a violin, but I didn’t think it was a bass. It wasn’t until the end of the film that the revealing “Cello Solos performed by Yo-Yo Ma” hit the screen. I now knew the name of my new-found love, as well as a new icon to follow. As my grandmother and I walked out of the theater, she said, “Wow.”

Wow was right. I had gone to the cinema that day to see entertaining trash and was fully unprepared for what followed. The film set a new standard for “action scenes” in a Kung Fu movie in that there really weren’t any—at least nothing that looked remotely realistic. Instead, the actors chased each other up stalks of towering bamboo. They literally flew from roof to roof in a nocturnal foot chase. It was a seamless synthesis of battle and ballet.

That lens of exaltation is at the core of art. No one goes to an opera to see how people on the streets really walk, dress, speak or sing. We go to operas and to ballets and to galleries to witness extracted beauty—to hear words spoken outside the realm of speech. Even photography is hopelessly unrealistic. Eternal moments do not exist in the natural universe.

After I got home from the movie, I announced to my parents that I wanted to learn to play the cello. They told me that in order to play a bowed instrument, like the cello or violin, I had to have perfect pitch. Perfect pitch is the almost super-human ability to name a pitch when hearing it, or to produce a certain pitch on command. It is a rare gift, even among professional musicians. I was irritated. I did not have perfect pitch, but I wouldn’t let that stop me. I resolved to train myself by sitting at the piano, closing my eyes and randomly striking a note. Then I would open my eyes and check my hypothesis.

Day after day for over a year I sat at the piano and hammered out miniscule success. Like most life lessons, I didn’t appreciate it as it happened. But rarely do we know we’ve enrolled in the school of hard knocks. Mostly we just feel the pain of tuition. I will admit that training your ear is not the most grievous of burdens, but it was a serious obstacle to certain bliss.

At length, I mastered all the white keys. I doubt my dad remembers the day I called him into the front room to test my accuracy. I stood with my back to the piano while he sat down facing it. He banged out a note. “C. Come on! Give me a hard one. E. B. G….” I have housed that day in my temple of personal accomplishments, and sure enough, it was sufficient evidence for my parents to see that I was serious about the cello.

I was 16 by the time I started renting my first cello. My parents had picked it out from Mississippi Music, and it was propped against the piano when I got back from school that day. I opened up the nylon case to see for the first time the cello I would later purchase and name Guastus. Guastus had a glossy dark stain and black finger board. His endpin had a hard rubber stop at the end that wound up being worthless at keeping the instrument stable on hard floors. I sat with Guastus for about an hour, having no clue how to hold a cello or the bow.

It was like a first kiss—I had only a vague idea of what I was supposed to be doing, but I just gloried in the basics. I scraped the bow across the strings and wrapped myself in those low, magnanimous tones. My favorite string was the second lowest. I think it was Bach’s too, because he starts his legendary cello suites with that open G pulsing at the beginning of the introductory measures. I think it’s fitting that my first experiments with the cello and the instrument’s most famous piece started out the same way. But of course, I wasn’t aware of any of that. I was only conscious of the resonance between the strings and my chest cavity. In those first moments, ignorance really was bliss.

But that was resolved by Sue Yoo. Sue Yoo was an Asian woman half the size of her cello with the soft voice and sharp glance of an assassin. She was cello teacher #1. Upon meeting her I told her that I had been working on acquiring perfect pitch, but hadn’t quite reached it. “I know it’s required to play the cello,” I said, happy that I could demonstrate some knowledge of the instrument. She quickly told me I was wrong, and it was unnecessary. Never again will rage and relief find so perfect a union.

Once I forgot to bring my bow with me to a lesson, so we did drills plucking the strings for half an hour. Subsequently, the fingers on my right hand were covered in blisters. Sue Yoo terrified me. She always wore massive stilettos with her black jeans. One night she broke into my room through the window while I was lying in bed and kicked me in the neck with those spikes. I was coughing and spattering blood everywhere right before I woke up and realized there was no escape from Sue Yoo, even in dreams.


But eventually I got a job at McDonald’s, which disrupted my cello lessons. I said goodbye to Ms. Yoo, but not to Guastus. We stuck with it, and I attempted to teach myself for the next year and a half, despite working 30-35 hour weeks my senior year of high school.

After my McDonald’s experience, I lost my tolerance for people who are too busy. When someone tells me they don’t have time for something, I stop listening. We all have 24 hours every day to spend on whatever we want. What you actually mean when you say, “I’m too busy for _____,” is “I don’t want to do _____.” The things we want to do most become our priorities, and we do them. When I got home from school, I practiced with Guastus because I wanted to master the cello more than I wanted to read a book or watch TV or play a video game or relax. Now, that’s not to say I didn’t occasionally indulge in something else, but I always made time for the cello.

When I’m in the midst of indulgent trash-TV and watching a talk show, I see something similar. “Baby, I love you more than anything in the world, but I just can’t stop _____.” The moment the “but” enters the sentence, I know the person is deceiving himself. No. You love smoking pot or sleeping around or eating to the point of morbid obesity more than you love your girlfriend or mom or wife. How do I know? Because you consistently obtain the one at the risk of losing the other. It’s a matter of priorities.

One of my priorities was to get a new bow. Mine was artificial, and it made Guastus sound more like an ecstatic Rosanne Barr than the typical James Earl Jones timbre for which cellos are famous. I ordered the new bow online. It was made from brasilwood and genuine horse hair. It turned out to be a good investment. I was playing at church a few weeks later when a woman approached me with the proposal to play at a relative’s wedding, which then covered the cost of the bow.

After I actually made money with the cello, I had a new confidence. I started by chasing after Bach’s second solo suite. To this day I’m overcome by that first movement. What Oscar Wilde’s character said of playing Chopin applied to me and Bach, “I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.”

Hamlet was in that same dimension when he puzzled over a staged lament for the mythological Queen Hecuba, and perhaps, had he not broken the trance, he could have found either the peace or the determination to resolve his inner conflict. We need art for reflective moments like those. The sublime makes us want to be better. It’s true of the best music, drama and art.

Towards the end of my last year of High School, I had a moment when I witnessed something truly sublime. I saw—in the flesh—Yo-Yo Ma perform the Dvorak cello concerto. It was in Alabama, of all places, and the Saenger Theatre was packed. My friends and I were clear in the back balcony, but I could hear every note with unmatched clarity. At the climax of the first movement, I was astonished to find myself weeping. I wasn’t just “getting misty.” Tears were streaming down my cheeks. Yo-Yo Ma had surpassed my understanding of perfection, and I didn’t know what to do with myself besides be better.

By the time I reached college, I was much better than when I first strolled into Sue Yoo’s studio. Now that I wasn’t working and had a university at my disposal, I figured it was a great time to renew a more structured approach to the cello. To start off my first lesson with Megan, she asked me to play something. I started playing a Bach piece. She stopped me and said she had never heard anything played so well with such awful technique. In the following semesters I unlearned everything I had taught myself, and began anew.

That can happen with people, too. On a few occasions I have been abroad for several months or years and had only limited contact with my friends and family. Every time I’ve come back I’ve been shocked at how different they are from how I thought they were. Each time I embarrass myself. Each time I have to start from the beginning. I’ve wondered about Odysseus in that regard. What did he think of Penelope in the weeks following his return? Did he ever stumble on his words and say the wrong thing? Did he ever feel like he was staring at a stranger?

In addition to re-learning the technique, I met a new instrument. I can’t remember why I went to a music store that day, but I decided to walk into the cello room. The sales clerk indulged me in letting me play a few of the new instruments. They were nice, but they just didn’t feel like they’d been broken-in.

Then in the back corner, I saw Eudora. Eudora is a blonde Italian, and she’s about 90 years old. I sat down with her and started to play. She was totally unique, and I say that without hyperbole. For one, the people who sculpted and repaired her had completely unorthodox approaches, leading to a ridge in the fingerboard and pegs connecting the neck to the back. I found out quickly that she had a capacity totally beyond Guastus. She could roar and shriek or hum and sing. But most amazing was her ability to play low notes so gently, and resonate so profoundly that my heart melted. I knew then that she was my cello. Guastus had been a good friend, and I haven’t sold him, but he needed to make way for my true love.

Eudora and I are still going steady. We’ve played for hundreds of people in various settings. One of my favorite and most recent venues was the local elementary school. I volunteered to do a lesson to several classes about the instrument and to play a Gabriel Fauré piece for them. I was hoping to surprise them. I was hoping to dazzle them with beauty the way the Kung Fu movie had me, and change a life. In some cases, I succeeded. I saw their little eyes widen and their jaws hang low as Eudora began to sing the soul-crushing strains of Fauré’s “Elegie.” I watched their conception of “pretty music” collapse.

That’s key in life—revelations and roadblocks unexpectedly shattering our expectations. What we have to do is use those opportunities to assess what’s really most dear to us, and then cling to that. And that’s why every society needs great art, because we use art to educate our yearning and our love. If we choose wisely, invariably, those cherished things will shock us again and again with their beauty, and we will find ourselves becoming more like the ideals we cherish.

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