Reality & Illusion, part 5: In the Sandbox

(Previous Episodes: 1. Bach at McDonald's. 2. Bach's Invisible Cello. 3. A Cellist, a Pianist, and a Composer Enter a Bar. 4. Bach, Dead and Reborn.)

The confusion we make between illusion and reality affects every last little bit of our daily existence.

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We create mystical beings in our imagination, and we assign them an objective, material reality. Among these beings are our teachers, our parents, our siblings, our friends—in fact, every person in our lives. It’s hard to crack this illusion, but “my cello teacher,” for instance, was in truth “my perception of my cello teacher,” rather than a tangible being with recognizable material properties. These days “my perception of my cello teacher” has become “my memory of my perception of my cello teacher,” taking the teacher further into the realm of the illusory.

If you think Bach exists for real, you risk assigning him a sort of ultimate authority; Bach would have “the last word” as concerns his music. And you risk assigning many other people minor-deity status, with everyone conspiring to pass judgments and create constraints—Fournier, Bazelaire, Casals, Starker, Bijlsma, Rostropovich, Ma, and a thousand teachers, players, writers, listeners, family, and friends.

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To give an example, when I told my cello teacher back when I was 14 that I wanted to become a professional musician, she said to me, with some sadness in her voice, “But you’ll never be a Pierre Fournier.”

Realistically, I think she was telling me that I wasn’t very good and wasn’t going to become very good either. Pierre Fournier, the blessed high priest, was a herald of the sacred texts of the fountainhead Johann Sebastian Bach. And I, unsightly adolescent, was unworthy of the priesthood. I should become an accountant, maybe. Or a mass murderer.

For a long time I struggled with the high priests inside my head, telling me that “my Bach” wasn’t “as good as Fournier’s” (or Casals’s or— whatever, whomever). I’d play Bach in my practice room, and the voices of the high priests moaned with pain about my intonation, my technique, my articulations, my haircut, you name it.

Then one day I became simple-minded, as it were. I asked myself an innocent little question. How would I play if I just decided to enjoy my own intimate relationship with the ambiguous blueprint, with all that “Bach-related information” that had come my way over the decades? How about I stop chasing Fournier’s ghost, and start chasing Bach’s ghost instead?

I went there. I ignored the musicologists, the cellists and non-cellists whom I’ve heard play over the years, my old teacher’s warnings, professional standards of technique, social standards of decency. I decided on my tempi, my dynamics, my bow strokes, my rubato, my everything. And I finally played “The Six Suites by Pedro de Alcantara and J. S. Bach,” in full ownership of my subjective half of the deal.

Did I play well? Such a question implies objective standards that point toward a thing called “reality.” Fournier probably wouldn’t have thought that I played well, but as it happens Fournier is also dead. His standards don’t count.

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Did I enjoy myself? I was as happy as a barefoot three-year-old in a sandbox, playing without adult supervision. In my subjective perception I build castles, palaces, and entire cities using Bach’s blueprints, or what was left of these blueprints “after the earthquake.” I mean, the earthquake of reality and illusion clashing for supremacy.

In conclusion & in a few words: Bury reality in the sandbox and play with your illusions. No, no, sorry! Bury your illusions in the sandbox and enjoy reality in all its glory.

Reality & Illusion, part 4: Bach, Dead and Reborn

I love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. On my list of greatest composers of all time, he shares first place with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When I was 14 I heard the late Pierre Fournier, a great French cellist, at a concert in my hometown. He played César Franck’s sonata for cello and piano (originally composed for violin and piano) and Bach’s Sixth Suite (originally composed for the five-string violoncello piccolo da spalla), among other pieces. The morning after his recital I decided to become a professional musician. Subsequently I heard him in two other live performances, one in New York and one in London. I collected some of his recordings, including his Bach Suites.

Here's Fournier in action. 

I heard Janos Starker play the Fifth Suite in São Paulo. I heard Anner Bijlsma play several suites in a single program in New York. I heard Maurice Gendron play the Second Suite in London. (As it happens, I also took master classes with these three great cellists; I played for them and received their feedback, though not on Bach’s Suites.) I heard plenty of cellists of my own generation play movements and whole suites. My LP collection of old included the complete Casals set, the Fournier set, and the Fifth Suite played by Aldo Parisot, with whom I studied for two years in grad school. My CD collection includes two period-performance sets, one of which played wholly on the violoncello da spalla.

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Bach wrote three sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord. I performed all three, sometimes with piano, sometimes with harpsichord. I heard Bach’s flute sonatas, both solo and accompanied, multiple times. I heard Bach’s keyboard music played on the piano, the organ, the harpsichord, and the clavichord, and I played a few of those pieces myself at the piano. I heard his orchestral pieces, and played several of them in my youth—the Brandenburg Concertos, the Suites, a violin concerto or two. I heard the Passions and learned a couple of recitatives with my first singing teacher. I heard some of the cantatas, some of the oratorios, many of the trio sonatas. I know the six sonatas and partitas for violin solo by heart. As a teacher and coach, I’ve looked closely at many of Bach’s compositions, helping pianists, violinists, and singers—among others—figure out what’s going on and how best to learn the compositions and perform them.

It's quite paradoxal. Bach seems very present in my life. Yet Bach doesn’t exist.

What exist are my perceptions of Bach; my perceptions of Fournier and Starker playing Bach; my memories of my perceptions of Fournier, playing—more than forty years ago—an ephemeral, subjective version of an incomplete and ambiguous blueprint.

It’s how it goes, inevitably, for all of us. Using tools that we manipulate subjectively—the tools of sight and sound, the tools of analytical thinking, the tools of emotion and intuition—we take some “Bach-related information” (which could be a printed score or something learned by ear or something we’ve culled from a thousand disparate experiences and encounters) and we use all that information to shape “our Bach.”

And then we go psychotic and say, “This is Bach.” Or, “This is by Bach.” Or, “Bach composed this.”

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No, no, and no.

You ought to say, “This is me, fashioned in a Bach costume.” “This is by me, as the result of an ongoing process that includes Bach-related information.” “I composed this, borrowing from Bach and multiple other sources going back decades. Strangely, every note in it ‘looks and sounds’ like the notes on a printed score with Bach’s name on it. Don’t you love those extensive, unexplainable coincidences?”

When Johann Sebastian Bach played the music of J. S. Bach way back when, "Bach was Bach." When I play the music of J. S. Bach today, “Bach isn't Bach.” He's . . . a hybrid, a body-snatched 300-year-old Brazilian-Prussian undead mutant.

A thing of beauty.

I’ll bypass the impossible task of delineating reality and illusion, and I’ll say that I prefer the psychosis in which Bach doesn’t exist to the psychosis in which Bach exists.

The moral of the story? It's a story in itself. Come back soon. 

Reality & Illusion, part 3: A Cellist, a Pianist, and a Composer Enter a Bar

I've been posting about reality and illusion, using the music of J. S. Bach as my starting point, and my experiences playing Bach's cello suites as the backbone of the discussion. And I've been trying to ask a strange question. Do the Six Suites for Solo Cello exist? Does Bach himself exist?

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I think all is illusion—or, rather, our subjective approach to Bach and to anything else "is" the reality. Bach’s Suites don’t exist as an absolute quantity or quality, as something forever unchanging, as something that all observers can agree upon with any degree of certainty. Like the quantum physicists who believe that the physical world doesn’t exist outside your perception of it, I believe that Bach’s Suites don’t exist outside what you make them to be—in your mind, your ears, your cello or marimba playing, your emotions, your thoughts, your family history, and everything else that forms the entity known as “you.” (BTW, quantum physicists believe that you don’t exist either, or me, or anyone or anything else. But this isn’t pertinent to this discussion.)

It is, however, exceedingly easy to fall prey to the illusion of the Suites’ reality, and to conduct your life as if they were, indeed, real.

If you believe that the Suites exist, you practice the cello in a certain way. You think long and hard about historicity, Bach’s intentions, the acoustic properties of the Baroque cello (or the viola da spalla or the violoncello da span or the . . .) and the environment where the Suites were originally performed, the manuscripts by Bach’s wife and students, what the scholars think, what the musicologists think, and a thousand other considerations.

If you believe that they’re illusory, you practice in a whole other way. You may or may not pay attention to the musicological issues. You may or may not try to find out how the Baroque cello (or the viola da spalla or the . . .) sounded like. You may or may not compare different editions. You may or may not listen to the highly regarded scholar-performers who give period-instrument performances. You may or may not listen to Casals, Ma, Rostropovich, or anyone else.

One attitude says, “You can’t start that Sarabande on an up-bow. Nobody would have done it in Bach’s time.” The other says, “How would it sound like if you started that Sarabande on an up-bow?”

One attitude says, “Certain things are nonnegotiable.” The other says, “Everything is possible.”

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There are merits and demerits to both approaches. Some disciplined musicians have given a lot of thought to historical, acoustic, and aesthetic issues; shaped their techniques to follow unyielding strictures; and given marvelous performances as a result. Others who have thought many of these lofty thoughts have given terrible performances. I once attended a concert by a star pioneer of the period-instrument movement. I left in the intermission, regretting the time and money wasted. Same with the everything-is-possible crowd. Thirty-five years ago I heard an unforgettable performance of the Third Suite on the marimba, played with divine beauty by a young man at a street fair in New York City. And I’ve heard plenty of performers unconstrained by taste, technique, or any degree of self-awareness do unspeakable things to Bach.

What does it all mean, in practice? What is a musician to do with all this metaphysical information?

The reason why András Schiff got me thinking is that some people think the music of J. S. Bach shouldn’t be played on the modern piano. It wasn’t “meant” to be played on the piano. It was “meant” to be played on the clavichord, a lovely plinky-plink instrument known to have been a favorite of Bach’s. According to this view, the mechanisms of the piano are in antagonism with the notes, phrases, and musical structures as conceived by Bach, and it’s a musical, sonic, aesthetic, historical mistake to play Bach on the piano.

Well, I think Bach’s keyboard music, much like the cello suites, doesn’t exist as an absolute entity. What exists is the inevitable, necessary, deeply personal, all-too-human interaction between the player and a vaguely delineated object called “the score.”

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The interaction between the score and the player is subjective, and so is the interaction between the listener and the entity now known as the-interaction-between-the-music-and-the player. I hear András Schiff do his subjective thing, and I have a subjective reaction of pleasure, even of love. It’s a love triangle: Bach, Schiff, and Alcantara, united in a single, continuous experience. Bach passed away centuries ago, and he’s really not thinking about Schiff or me or anyone else. Schiff has no idea that I exist—or perhaps he has an abstract idea of having many listeners, but he doesn’t play “for me” in person. And yet, when I listen to Schiff play Bach, we three are one. In that moment, “I am Schiff, I am Bach.”

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi talks beautifully about how a certain form of listening creates a union between the sound and the listener.

Come back soon, and I'll tell you a ghost story.

Reality & Illusion, part 2: Bach's Invisible Cello

In my last blog post I remarked that listening to the pianist András Schiff playing the music of J. S. Bach got me meditating about reality and illusion.

I first studied Bach’s music as a 14-year-old cellist, growing up in São Paulo, Brazil. Bach composed six suites for solo cello. The sixth of them he wrote for a five-stringed instrument tuned like a standard cello (from the bottom up, C G D A) with an added E string. Some well-trained minds speculate that Bach never meant his pieces for the cello as we know the instrument today, but for a large viola-like instrument held from the player’s shoulder by a strap. This instrument is called by some people a violoncello da spalla . . . and by other people a violoncello piccolo da spalla or violoncello da span . . . and by some other people a viola da spalla. It’s said that Bach and other composers of the time (three centuries ago) called this instrument violoncello.

Here's a spirited violoncello da spalla performance of a movement from Bach's Sixth Suite. The performer is Sergey Malov.

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Now let's go back to the 14-year-old kid in Brazil. Playing a modern cello made from materials that didn’t exist in Bach’s time, the kid buys a score for a piece composed for some other instrument; and the score is in fact a Frenchman’s heavy-handed interpretation of Bach’s wife’s dictation of the piece, and no one can be sure how she ever went about taking down that dictation in the first place. Reality or illusion? Was I really playing Bach's actual cello suites? Or was I having some sort of rather subjective head trip?

Over the centuries since their composition, these pieces went through multiple transformations in the minds and hearts of musicians. After Bach’s death most of his music “disappeared” from public awareness for a while, until (as all students in music history classes learn) the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn “rediscovered” Bach and advocated his music anew—some of the music anyway, which was then performed in the fashion of Mendelssohn’s time.

The cello suites stayed out of public awareness for much longer. From time to time they were used as technical studies, and very occasionally some fool would play a movement or two in performance. I say a “fool” because the suites weren’t really considered “music.” (Reality and illusion, anyone?)

Pablo Casals finally brought the suites out from oblivion, studying them in depth, performing them in public as works of art, and recording them as a complete set in 1938 and 1939. Here's the great man, performing the First Suite in 1954.

Since Casals’s time, the Suites have become an integral part of the canonic repertory. Thousands of cellists of all ages and abilities have performed the pieces hundreds of thousands of times all over the world. These cellists practiced passages from the pieces hundreds of millions of times. Some notes in some suites have been played more than a billion times. I myself made a modest contribution to these statistics, adding roughly five thousand attempts at playing some of the suites in my practice room and in public from 1972 to 2013. Or ten thousand attempts, maybe. But certainly not more than fifty thousand attempts, at most.

Besides the thousands of cellists, tens of thousands of other musicians also studied or performed the suites, in whole or in part—including violists, trombonists, flutists, guitarists, lute players, marimba players, you name it.

According to an Internet source, there are over 80 printed editions of the suites, some claiming to be as close to Bach’s intended ideas as possible, others making no claims of any sort. I don’t know how many commercially available recordings there are, but a quick search of “Bach cello suites” on Amazon.com shows 1,482 choices as of January 14, 2013, with the top two spots being the complete CD sets by Yo-Yo Ma and Mstislav Rostropovitch.

Here’s a nifty thing as regards our discussion. This is how these top spots are listed at Amazon:

The 6 Unaccompanied Cello Suites Complete by Yo-Yo Ma and J. S. Bach (2010) 

Bach: Cello Suites by Mstislav Rostropovich and Johann Sebastian Bach (1995)

The players’ names are listed before the composer’s. The Suites are as if “by Yo-Yo Ma first and foremost, and also by J. S. Bach.” It could be a simple matter of information display, or a simple matter of marketing considerations. Or it could be food for thought if you’re interested in figuring out reality from illusion. Other choices in information display are available. The #4 item on Amazon’s page, for instance, is listed as “Bach: Cello Suites by Johann Sebastian Bach (2003)”, with the name of the performer not shown at all. (You can find out easily, of course. Click on the link for details. All right, I’ll tell you anyway: It’s Pablo Casals.)

Is it crazy for Yo-Yo Ma to be listed as a co-creator of the Bach Suites, or is it crazy for Pablo Casals not to acknowledge that he’s a co-creator of the Bach Suites?

To put it differently, do the 6 Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, by Johann Sebastian Bach (born 1685, died 1750) exist? Are they “real,” or are they “illusory”?

Does Bach himself exist?

Stay tuned.

Reality & Illusion, part 1: J. S. Bach at McDonald's

The other night I spent some time on YouTube watching the pianist András Schiff playing the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I’ve never seen Schiff perform live, and until now I wasn’t that familiar with his playing. I enjoyed it tremendously. His Bach sparkles and swings; his Bach speaks, laughs, and cries. It’s quite something.

Watching and listening to him got me thinking about reality and illusion.

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I first studied Bach’s Six Suites for solo cello in my adolescence. I was probably 14 when I sight-read the first suite, working from the one edition I was able to buy in my native São Paulo, in the classical-music backwater that Brazil was then (and, to a good degree, still is now). The edition was signed by Paul Bazelaire, a French cellist who was born in 1886 and died in 1958 (that's him on the cute photo). To Bach’s music, Bazelaire added dynamics, phrase markings, fingerings, metronome markings, and a thousand other indications. Later I bought several other editions of the suites. Over the decades I studied all the suites and performed several of them. I know them by heart, and like most cellists I only need to hear three notes from any excerpt to recognize which movement in which suite those three notes come from.

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What is reality, what is illusion? The metaphysicians have been debating this for millennia. There are many viewpoints on the issue. A minority—a tiny minority—believes that reality is an objective situation shared by everyone. Some say that the whole of humanity is someone’s huge dream, with no objective existence. Others claim that reality is what you make of it. A guy and his girlfriend sitting quietly across each other at a Macdonald’s are in two distinct, separate, and perhaps even mutually exclusive realities. The girl is having feelings, thoughts, thoughts about her feelings, and feelings about her thoughts—some of which involve the guy, or a version of the guy she imagines day by day. The guy is communing with the salt, fat, and sugar, and he’d be surprised if the girl suddenly entered his awareness and addressed him. “Don’t interrupt me,” he’d say. And his using these many words would deplete his energies and justify his ordering another Big Mac.

The idea that the guy and his girlfriend share a single, objective reality is ludicrous.

When a performer views a score, metaphysical questions regarding illusion and reality are in fact not only pertinent but downright urgent. Three hundred years ago, a human being called Johann Sebastian Bach, living in a country that today is called Germany but that back then didn’t actually exist as a country in the modern conception of the world, composed a piece for solo cello. He seems never to have written the piece down, but his wife wrote it down for him, and so did a couple of his students. How? Did they hear Bach play it on the cello? Or did Bach play the notes on the clavichord, and the wife and the students wrote down the notes as if for the cello?

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How come the scores came out a little different—in pitches, flats and sharps, slurs and articulations? If the versions differ (and remember, no version is in Bach’s hand), is one right and the others wrong? How can we tell? Is it important for us to be able to tell? How did Bach intend his piece to be played? And if he had specifics in mind, must we try to obey him? Does that mean that there’s only one way to play the piece—one legitimate, approved, sanctioned, sanctified way that renders all other ways criminal or sinful?

Nobody agrees on the questions—or on the answers. Watch this space for further developments.