Wednesday, August 22, 2012

cello in the trees

West off Highway 101, through Sebastopol celebrating local bounty at its apple fair, through the neat braids of vines that cover the gentle, sunny hillsides of Sonoma county, onto the Bohemian Highway, and into the shade of the redwoods, onto the single-track roads that wound up through Camp Meeker.....I had no idea what to expect as I pulled up at the Navarro River String Camp, a five day summer camp for beginning and intermediate adult string players.  When the camp began, 8 years ago (I think), there were about 15 campers--the students of its founders, Marcia Sloane and Marion Crombie.  Now there were over 50 enthusiastic players of violin, viola and cello, some who had begun as adults, others who had returned to their instrument after playing as a child.

As we gathered in the main house for the first time for introductions, I asked the man next to me, in his 60s, perhaps older, if he had come to the camp before.  "It's marvellous," he said, with quiet appreciation, "it sustains you all year."  Vague feelings of nervous expectation and slightly fearful doubt flickered through me upon his reply.  Was it possible that this experience could bring to me something so powerful, but of as yet uncertain dimensions...?  This, deep down, was what I was seeking, by coming here, by beginning to play the cello in the first place -- but how would such wishes bear up to reality?  Would they collapse or remain meagerly unrealized through my limited abilities to actually make music...?

There was much to learn.  At the first meeting of our cello quartet, we were four people on chairs randomly strewn out over the room. Move closer, Elizabeth, the coach, told us before we even set to playing anything.  We had an attempt at our first piece, Locus Iste by Bruckner, a motet which evokes the soaring stone resonance of a church.   Then the second, one of the Polovetsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor, where the melody line floats in turn between us, issuing up from and returning to the harmonic pulse of the dance.

We could focus on only one piece to perform at the concert at the end of the camp, and we chose Borodin.  Alas, we lost the lead member of our quartet after the first day...the hillside retreat did not seem to be quite the right time or place for her just her part was to be taken by one of the coaches.  We practiced on days two and three alone, and with a coach: we counted out the measures, we counted and played together, counted and played separately, counted and tried to dance with our cellos, and counted some more.  One hour after lunch I practiced alone, on a deck high up among a natural circle of redwoods, my shiny lacquered red cello against the rough red of their bark.  I played Borodin, I played Bach, and Corelli.  At the beginning of the camp, I might have been too self-conscious to do such a thing, but soon the all-pervasive ease and enthusiasm dissolved any such feelings.  And throughout the camp, the sounds of others practicing and playing were to be heard everywhere among the trees.

On day four Diane, Christine & I played the piece again, missing the first cello.  I nearly wept.  Something had happened overnight.  We were suddenly much more together, and we could listen to one another.  The music was happening somewhere in the mingling of our voices. There was a new responsiveness between us: I slowed in my line of melody; the others could slow the accompaniment to match, to catch me, rather than let me fall through the cracks in the rhythm.  We played again, with Burke, the coach -- these were moments of such joy that I think they will be forever dear to me, the feeling that we were really making music together, the change of a chord that is caught by the strange organ of perception that's somewhere in the middle of your chest.

There was plenty of other playing besides: chorales, warm-ups, large ensembles, impromptu sight-reading before dinner, after dinner, late into the night.  At night, in bed at last, I would float off to sleep on the pulse on the Polovetsian dance and hear my heart beat out its rhythms into the bed beneath me.

Rhythm was obviously the key to playing together.  If you played all the right notes at the wrong time, then they are all wrong, my teacher had once said.  And rhythm was probably the hardest and least-conquered aspect of playing for me.  The most elusive and attractive property of music was that sense of continuous movement -- movement that was not yours, but the music's own, embodied through you.... 

The camp included an elective 3-session workshop called "Solidifying Our Inner Pulse and Developing Sight-Reading Skills."  For part of this session each day we stood in a circle, with four syllables: Ta Ke Ti Na, a regular drum beat and an incrementally developing series of steps and claps to co-ordinate with the syllables.  Then there was a call-and-response: could you maintain the pulse while repeating different rhythmic syllables back, or simply maintain the pulse in spite of the disordered rhythm.  The first day, I would stumble, clap wrong, miss a clap, flail about, or, so very fleeting and elusively, land in the rhythmic pattern.  The second day was little better, but suddenly I found myself upset and troubled -- about more than steps or claps, but rather a deeper anxiety, about my being in the world, my occupation, my education...was I ever fully embodied and present?  how rare were those moments of embodied being, free from the incessant, overlaid (verbal, reflective, critical) consciousness....?  I was taken right back to feeling that original vague but strong impulse that had led me towards the cello -- the sense of a rift that needed to be healed between mind and body.  I did not need to learn how to step and clap and utter the syllables; I needed simply to surrender myself and my intuition to the force of the rhythm around me.

In the third and final session, something was, or became, palpably different in the room.  I feel confident that it wasn't just my own experience that was different, that there was a collective altered state.  I still stumbled and flailed at times -- but now I felt that the rhythm was still there, that it was there to catch me.  I was more aware of the connection with the ground as I stepped, and more aware of the connection with the group as I moved.    Now, more often, at least, my movements didn't originate from conscious mental effort but from connection to a source that was outside of me, outside of all of us.  When we stopped, it did not feel like an arbitrary end, an abrupt transition into another state; rather, that rhythm that had been ours stayed resonating in the room and had to slowly, silently, subside.

There was something profoundly musical, vital and therapeutic about that experience with TaKeTiNa (I learned, back at home in front of my computer, that it is actually an established phenomenon).  I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity to open myself up to something like that, which is unlike anything I have ever done before.  Such an immersive and embodied experience of rhythm goes far beyond anything that a regular weekly music lesson could provide. I feel incredibly grateful to Marcia and Marion, the organizers, who could see that in this might lie a solution to what their adult students struggled with so much.  And, in general, I am inspired and moved to think of how they, and all the coaches, so honestly met their students' passionate desire to play music with such passionate commitment to wanting them to play music, that they could create this special environment.

One more rhythmic revelation came in the final rehearsal for our large ensemble, where we played some of the Hungarian folksong-infused "Ten Pieces for Children" by Bartok.  In one piece, a fairly fast canon, there was a bar of general pause, silence for everybody, followed by, for the cellos, another bar's rest.  This was tricky.  First of all, I didn't know how I was going to stop my bow and ensure it was silent and not skittering and flailing about on the strings as I stumbled into that measure of silence.  With that resolved, we then finally learned how to count the silence.  And suddenly that experience of the rest was utterly transformed -- from a vague sense of hanging about and not playing and hoping for the best that you would come in again at the right moment, into silence with a beat, with shape and contour!

As I drove back home to Portland, along the foggy coast on 101, I thought of those words the fellow camper had said to me in the first conversation on the redwood-ed hillside, "it sustains you all year."  I do feel like the camp has given me something I could not have imagined beforehand, and left me with a special reserve of experience that will continue to nourish the coming weeks and the return to the oh so other rhythms of the academic semester.  A deeply human and humane experience, a far-reaching well-being, new friendships, the special connection of the shared days and meals and music, a falling away of the fear and stress that, alas, have pervaded much of my new work.  But, perhaps, this experience will be sustaining--and in all the other weeks of the year it might be possible to fall away from fear and away from the consciousness it renders brittle, and into the buoyancy of rhythm.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

the cellist and the garden

I’m sleeping on a bed that was made for a cellist.   The bed is raised high up off the ground by shelves at its head and foot, and in the middle, under the bed, is an empty space.  A place to keep a cello for a cellist who once lived with little space to spare.  Now the bed is in a small cabin just north of Fort Bragg, and the space under the bed serves well the suitcases of visitors who come to the Pacific coast and let the ocean breathe into them.  The cellist is no longer a cellist but a gardener.   “I hated being inside.  Hours in the practice room – that was the worst thing for me.”  

From the gardens around the cabin comes the night-time song of frogs.  The garden around the cabin is beautiful – plants and trees shape this living space, extending to the outside the created world of a home that tends and protects.   It has been raining a lot, and all the outdoors brims and drips with water droplets. Under the wide spread of a cedar tree is an outdoor bathtub, reached across a green carpet of baby’s tears ground cover.  I lie in the steaming bathtub in the dark, under the branches, after the rain.   
Garden bathtub between the leaves

All the more striking for its contrast with the sheltering intimacy of this garden, at the end of the lane, the road gives onto the wild sand dunes of McKerricher State Park.  A vast open expanse of dunes leads down to the ocean, rising up to over 100 feet and then opening out into broad, wind rippled flats.  Grasses, succulents and other hardy coastal plants grow here: in many places the grasses have an established hold on the sides and crests of the dunes, but there are other places where single leaves or shoots appear through the sand, at the mercy of its shifting in the wind, and always ready to press and grow their way back to the surface.  The sand, and winter storms, has also reclaimed stretches of the old logging haul road, the line it draws down the coast from Ten Mile River erased and blurred at intervals into the surrounding dunes.  Turning away from the water and heading inland back towards the tree line, the sound of the ocean gradually diminishes as each dune you round hushes its pounding roar.  From the bathtub, the continuous motion of the waves is still audible from beyond the garden.

McKerricher State Park

Saturday, November 26, 2011

intimate geography

Three months in a new city, a new job, new circumstances of life, and there has not been a lot of time to reflect.  In California I got used to seeing far: up towards the hills, down onto the thoroughly settled streets below, across the water, the consoling twinkle of the Bay Bridge lights, the contours of Marin, the bold geography -- human and physical -- reassuringly legible, and after a few years, comprising a map I held and knew inside myself.  I like to let my eye move over these distances, and there is a special freedom gained, a healing salve received from these views and the many transformations and contrasts they contain, which take one out of oneself, supplying the energy of an exchange with a dedicated interlocutor.

In Portland, there are views to be had of the forest that surrounds the city -- to the east beyond Mt Tabor and out towards Mt Hood, and, from the westward looking window of my apartment, beyond the tamed, variegated leafiness of trees that line streets and shade houses, you can just see the top of a dark ridge of forest that lies somewhere on the other side of the Willamette River.  The climate and ecology here, even within the city, feel like they are of the forest.  My road is thick with wet fallen leaves; only the asphalt thwarts the regenerative processes of the forrest floor.

West from my window.

There has not been a lot of time for the regenerative reflection and leisurely wandering of the eye or mind, nor, alas, for the cello.  I now realize even more how my learning to play the cello was bound up with the writing of my dissertation.  The combination of relative solitude and a peculiarly singular focus in the dissertation-writing period (which I'm not necessarily harking back to as idyllic from this vantage point; it also bred its own moments of difficulty and dissatisfaction)  happily admitted another idiosyncratically singular focus into my near-daily life--the cello.

The cello also became bound up with the growing sense of connection and at-home-ness I felt living in the Bay Area.  I realized at some point in California--at a time that I think coincides with the beginning of learning to play the cello--that I was particularly vulnerable to, and derived great pleasure from, inserting myself into, or allowing inside of myself, stories and experiences that all laid down some deeper or more densely braided sense of connection to this place.  One simple instance, which never failed in giving me that pleasure, was taking the road from Berkeley to El Cerrito to where I had my cello lessons -- Colusa Avenue that winds northwards, probably about mid-way between the hills and the bay.  I simply loved knowing the way, possessing an experience, confirmed regularly, of everyday life against the backdrop of this landscape.  After the early years of myopic preoccupation in a place to which I had no links, personal or historical, other than to the university that welcomed me there, I had finally acquired a sense of something larger that I could at once hold inside myself and find myself participating in.  (I'm sure such a sense is a rather fundamental psychological need that must be met in order for us to experience fulfilling self-realization -- but it's curious how in the case of my years in California, all of this found a vivid articulation through my relationship to landscape and geography.)   

There were other things too, of course: playing the cello, I met Matthew, who had been born and lived all his life in California, and who is someone in whom the past lives vividly and so close at hand and as an abiding constituent of the present -- something which comes through in his stories -- and was one of the first things I noticed about him.  Through him, more of the map and more of the past of Berkeley and of California came alive to me.

Before I went to Yosemite for the first time in late spring 2009, Matthew told me a hilarious story of a visit of his own there, with two musicians who were brothers, and an older eccentric friend of theirs, Howie, one of Berkeley's cast of colourful characters (who I did then once meet, and who sadly died last year).  

In the room where I had my cello lessons, on the wall above the place where Matthew's own cello stood elegantly in its velvet-lined wooden box, was a striking photograph of a woman smiling and seeming to call out with joy from the picture.  She was leaning at an angle of about 45 degrees with her arms stretched out above her head to another large slab of rock above -- so that it almost looked as if she hanging or dangling from the granite.  The woman in the photo was Margaret Rowell, Matthew's cello teacher, and the picture was taken in Yosemite.  The photograph expressed an energy which seemed to come from the unlikely opposing forces captured in that instant.  There was a tension in the stretched body, but also an ease and delight.  The angle she was stood at was so unlikely that it looked as if it could have only lasted for a moment, but was, in fact, perfectly supported by the rock above and below.  The portrait was taken relatively close-up, but the scale of the rocky surroundings is still palpable, and the photograph spoke at once of the body's smallness against this backdrop of its liberation and life.

Yesterday was the first day that I have allowed myself to wander in Portland.  I went to Washington Park where the city begins to meet the forest.  I looked for the views of Mt St Helen's and Mt Hood, but either the cloud or the trees, or my own poor orientation, obscured them.  Then I went to Powell's Books (the largest independent used & new bookstore in the world, occupying a whole city block in downtown Portland).  I found myself in the photography section, looking at books of Yosemite, and found there an edition of John Muir's 1912 text "The Yosemite," in an edition with photographs by Galen Rowell, the son of Margaret, a climber, explorer and photographer, who had died in a plane crash in 2002.  The book was dedicated to "My mother Margaret Avery Rowell, whose lifelong passion for Yosemite started with a visit by open touring car in 1916."  I recalled Matthew also telling me of how Margaret played cello in the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite.  I obviously never knew these people and my links to them are vague and fragile, negligible, even, but suddenly happening upon these connections again yesterday was deeply restorative -- wandering reflection, the eye traversing distances, and entering into a dialogue that extends over decades and landscapes and enters, for a moment, into an exchange with the stories of lives that were closely wed to those landscapes.

After these three months of feeling like I had been acting only on one plane, with only the most proximate visible to me, feeling like only one thing is of any consequence--survival in this new working situation--it was revivifying to let the eye and  mind wander, and to see the transformations and connections that compose a larger picture of distances and proximities, and to let the energy and value that we attach to some of the more distant things let itself be felt in life again.

Galen Rowell, Sunset After a Storm, Yosemite Valley, 1970.
Galen Rowell, Clearing Storm over El Capitan, 1973.

From John Muir's The Yosemite
"These beautiful days do not exist as mere pictures--maps hung upon the walls of memory to brighten at times when touched by association or will... They saturate themselves into every part of the body and live always."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fwd: Please Re-Deliver to Bach

Last night I practiced: some scales, and then the Prelude of the first Bach Suite. Something always catches inside me when, at the half-way point, you reach the return of the G-D-B chord after all the journeying out from those notes that had opened the Prelude. The recognition of home, the same but different, after all that's come before. Then, as I paused on the long high D before the waves of scales start, I thought I heard applause from the street below. I carried on. This morning, as I left the house, there was an envelope on the porch, in front of the doormat. A slug or snail had clearly investigated it in the night, taking a few nibbles from the top.

I opened the envelope as I walked to the bus stop. A neighbour asking me to be quiet? Inviting me to join their garage jam opposite? As I read, my eyes filled with tears.

Dear Anonymous Cello Player,

Tonight you saved me. I cannot explain how or why, but you simply saved my life tonight.
Recently I had been planning to take my life and leave this world. But the music that flowed from your window stopped me, it paralyzed me. And in doing so, I was completely caught off guard.
The woman I love left me heartbroken and tortured, but the song that breathed on the air of this night reminded me that I would be leaving far more than just this world. I would be leaving so much more behind as well. Beauty, pure unparalleled beauty.
In saying that I cannot thank you enough. Tonight I heard the most breath-taking music I have ever heard. Nothing will ever compare. The memory of that sound, the reminder it gave me will never leave me.
So thank you. You have shown me that there is more surprise to this world than I have ever known.
Again, thank you for saving my life. I will never know you and you will never know me, but know that music, and the perfect night, are there.
A Listening Stranger.

That the simple, beautiful designs of Bach can issue into the night from the cello of a novice and be -- music -- act as music in the world -- that, truly, is miraculous. That in one unwitting moment and for one accidental listener, I could be a musician and let music into somebody else's world -- with that, too, the letter-writer has shown me, in turn, that there is more surprise in the world than I have ever known.

I wish the Listening Stranger well, and may future happiness be his.

* * *

A day of unconventional mail, art again moving through the world and making its effects felt in unexpected places: also received today, from dear Matthew, in California, who taught me to play, a painting. It sat on top of his piano, and the window whose view inspired it was behind me as I sat with my cello. The light on the San Francisco Bay luminous in pastel as the framer carefully cuts it free of the packaging. He looks it over admiringly: "every inch is expressive, is an integral part of the work...." I tell him that if one knows, then this impressionistic light and colour is unmistakably the Bay, seen from the hills to the the east. The rise of Angel Island in the foreground, the contoured mass of Marin in the right-hand background. "I used to live there," he said. "This gives me goosebumps."

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

tale from the in-between times

The past few weeks I have been living in something of an in-between time - when the normal rhythms of daily life have been utterly suspended. Upon returning to the US from Russia (with quick dip back into the English woods on the way) just over a month ago now, I essentially entered the state of Moving. And although I've been at rest in my final destination for a week, I don't think I will truly exit this state until my furniture catches up with me, and I can finally be at rest on something other than the air mattress or the single chair I brought with me in the car (brought along for the cello, of course, for what good would it be to be in an empty apartment with a cello and no chair...?)

Pictures: (left) cello with houseplant in my empty old apartment (good acoustics!) (right) "Musician's chair" at "Duet," an exhibition of woodworking and musical instruments in Mendocino, CA (July 2011).
But the funny thing about this state of Moving was the sheer length of time it consumed -- there was at least a good week in the middle there pretty much entirely devoted to it (and that's not even counting the earlier house-hunting mission). And for this time I was very actively -- physically and mentally (the boxes even entered my dreams) -- engaged in the whole palaver -- yet all this daily effort had little worth in itself and yielded little meaningful creation in the world... I wasn't really Doing (and definitely not Relaxing, either) - just Moving. It all felt a bit like being on a very, very long plane ride...not just moving, but moving life on. It was all for the sake of what was to come at the Moved To destination.

So maybe there wouldn't be much to tell about the Moving -- a prolonged banality full of details which were of little interest to anyone outside the immediate context of attaining the state of Moved, all a bit of a non-activity that comes between the real tellable incidents at either end. But there's a particular delight in finding stories in the banal in-between times, in elevating the mundane to the tellable. And in this whole process, I think one incident, or non-incident, captured this for me above all:

I needed to procure a No Parking permit from the City of Berkeley in order to clear a space next to my house for the movers' truck to park -- or so the moving company informed me. Having spent at least the first half of my seven years in Berkeley feeling more like a transient student than an actual resident of the city, I quite relished the feeling of citizenry involved in making an appointment and showing up at the Permit Service Center in Downtown Berkeley. I dutifully drew my dubiously scaled diagram of the street, the house and the required kerb space on the orange form and waited my turn. In the waiting area I found a large-print edition of the Reader's Digest magazine to flick through. The Reader's Digest! This had been a staple of my childhood -- the true-life death-defying stories, the "It Pays to Enrich Your Word Power" vocab quizzes, and the humorous anecdotes sent in by readers -- all of these were consumed by me as a young, impressionable reader. The improbable anecdotes and gaffes, sent in by people from strangely named places like Coward, South Carolina or Carthage, Missouri were, in retrospect, one of my earliest encounters with America -- although I think all those names, places and comic incidents existed for me only in some haze of the obscure reality of the world of the Reader's Digest and its twelve little curlicues on the spine, shaded in, one more at a time, on each month's edition.

In the middle of reading a true-life story about a college student who rescues her boyfriend who's plummeted down a rocky ravine, my name is called. The clerk is quite stern, and I am scolded for not knowing the exact length of my movers' truck. I am sent away to make a phone call, and when I return (having rejoined the queue, but barely for long enough to even resume my place in the ravine rescue story) we conclude that I need four 20 foot parking spaces. The clerk retrieves four No Parking signs (considerably larger at close quarters than when you see them in situ at the side of the road) and begins to fill in the details on them in marker pen. I had seen something about buckets of concrete on the instructions for how to erect the signs, and was a little nervous about the prospect of concrete mixing fitting into my weekend plans... There was, however, I learned, an alternative. Having established that there was a strip of grass between the sidewalk and the kerb, the clerk sternly and soberly issued detailed instructions: I was to go to a garden center, buy some bamboo canes, cover the No Parking signs with Saran wrap (BritEng: cling film; for years, until I saw it written down (in Zadie Smith's On Beauty where maybe her own British ear was revelling in the local knowledge) I thought the AmEng was "surround wrap" -- seemed perfectly logical...), thread the canes through the sign, tape them onto the back, and bang them into the ground -- but making sure to water the ground first because it will be too hard. I nod, pay, thank her, and leave with my armful of signs, slightly anxious about the meter that would've expired at my parking spot while I was being schooled in the art of bamboo sign assembly. How absurd would that be, eh - to get a parking ticket while you were out obtaining parking permits...

I went to the Berkeley Horticultural Nursery, bought bamboo canes (not before inspecting the bamboo plant in our backyard and concluding that its stems didn't quite offer me what I needed) and devoted Sunday afternoon to a rather haphazard arts and craft project with the signs. (As a friend pointed out, perhaps I could have fashioned them into an entry for the Berkeley Kite festival that was taking place that weekend at the Marina). But the clerk was right, and I did indeed need to water the ground before being able to bang the canes in...I felt like I was consecrating the earth, sprinkling it with holy water.

My signs stood firmly by the roadside, duly offering their three days warning about the parking restriction. The designated No Parking day approached...A small white car occupied one of the spaces, and it had never moved the whole time...what if the owners where away? When it was still there the night before, I started to get worried -- my god, what if I actually had to have somebody towed away?! I wasn't banking on that! There was I feeling all nice and citizenly as I went down to the City of Berkeley offices -- not thinking that I would end up a tow-truck menace! Maybe the movers' truck will be smaller, I thought, hopefully. Which, of course, it was. You could have parked three of them in 80ft. So, in the end, the truck parked in a space behind the white car, behind all my carefully signposted spaces -- in a space that was empty anyway....

But I guess what really tickled and awed me about all this -- about the unflinching sobriety of the clerk, the specificity of the instructions and the established existence of the whole process was was just that -- its established-ness. That at any given time there were people in Berkeley who were in the extra-ordinary in-between time of moving (or doing construction work or whatever else means you ned to stake out the territory in front of your property) and who were piddling about with Saran wrap and bamboo canes and watering cans, or, pity the (BritEng) verge-less, mixing concrete and buying buckets.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Petersburg's In-Between Spaces

There’s a particular kind of daytime snoozing that I associate with the summertime in St Petersburg – a half- conscious, shallowly immersed, dream-state in which fragments of the surrounding environment and snatches of recent experience float and mingle and expand and contract. I didn't have so much cause to practice submitting myself to this art of lucid dreaming on this visit – for one, the curtains of my room were thicker and more effective at blocking out the midsummer white nights—but the couple of times I have surrendered to a daytime nap, the experience is as vivid as ever. I’m sure this state arises from a combination of the unrelenting daylight, the suspension in a foreign city’s bustle, and the foreign language’s rustle all around and inside. On this trip, at least, I felt some sounds and shapes of Russian a little more internalized than previously. Could this have anything to do with my newly attuned musical ear…? Of course, I’d like to think so, but who’s to know.
In my last week in Petersburg, I went to a concert of organ and cello music. The street address on Sadovaya gave little away about the actual location – it turned out to be set way back from the street, in the grounds of the Suvorovskii-Military Academy, in the Maltese Chapel.
[A Maltese Chapel in Russia? I had no idea…but it turns out that Paul I, son of Catherine the Great, had been made the Protector of the Order of the Maltese Knights of St John in 1797. Paul had grown up reading stories of knights of old, and he went on to develop a particular interest in things chivalric: he endeavoured (with no success or popularity) to reinstitute the honor of the old chivalric orders as an antidote to what he perceived as Russia's corrupt aristocracy. In Petersburg, city of royal palaces, it is a castle--Mikhailovsky Castle--complete with drawbridges and armored knights in relief on its front walls--that was Paul's residence. The Knights of St John were connected to the grail, and ss for the Maltese Chapel--and tales of knights that played on my own childhood imagination--I have to admit that something about the chapel's facade--which you come upon suddenly in a hidden courtyard, seamlessly joined to other buildings--reminded me of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the grail temple carved into the rock (filmed at Petra in Jordan).]

The Maltese Chapel at Sadovaya 26, embedded in the Suvorovskii Military Academy

But I digress…Russian tsars…Indiana Jones…ah yes, Vivaldi…To my delight, among the pieces they played was the Vivaldi cello sonata in Eb minor – one of the sonatas that I had played. This was a new experience for me – hearing something that I knew (and knew only through playing –not something I was already familiar with as a listener). Both this novelty and, perhaps, the very nature of this particular music – the clarity of its phrase structures – made for a different kind of listening experience – one where I was as aware of every note as of the unfolding movement of the whole. Listening to the clear line of the cello was like hearing it draw out of me something that I held whole inside myself. Like knowing the words of a play--not just glancingly familiar but deeply internalized—that you see acted before you.
The semi-conscious lucid dreaming is just one of St Petersburg’s in-between spaces. In this transitional society--definitely still transitional 20 years after the end of the Soviet Union--building work, repair and remodeling are going on everywhere, and building-use, commercial activity and consumer behavior are all in a state of flux. I had two particularly striking experiences of Petersburg's in-between spaces that seemed very much typical of the city's current condition and evolution. It is probably no coincidence, either, that they were both in the company of my young friends -- who have degrees in interior design and environmental design, a specialty that also belongs to and finds much application in today's Petersburg.

The first was a house -- an unrestored osobniak -- on the embankment right next to the Hermitage. The house was up for sale, but, thanks to its prestigious location and size, at such an enormous cost that it was hardly likely that a buyer would be swiftly forthcoming. So, in the meantime, it was being rented to group of young designers and artists who used the large empty rooms as exhibition and studio space. On my first night in Petersburg, I found myself on its balcony staring right across at the gold spire of the Peter and Paul Fortress against the midnight dusk sky. A party was being held to celebrate one young woman's fashion collection; the clothes were displayed against the flecked walls of peeling plaster, and some time after midnight were hoisted to ceiling-height to make more room for dancing. A couple of weeks later, my interior designer friends took me to their studio. An entrance from the street led up a dingy staircase; we were let into one door and led through a long twisting, high-ceilinged corridor, hung with sheets, and between the seams, every now and then, you could see the building pared down to its bare structural form -- way beyond even the shabby chic of the make-shift fashion exhibition, completely uninhabitable. Then, suddenly, the corridor ended and opened into a large double-sized studio, with beautiful wood floors, fresh paint and all new fixtures. The windows looked onto the yard, and I was completely disoriented as to which way we now faced compared to where we had entered. What will these in-between spaces, and the spaces they are between, have become in another five or ten years, I wonder?

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ensemble of Violoncellists of St Petersburg

Somewhere between the trips on vodka-vapoury buses that move at a rate of inches-per-hour and the trips on sleek express trains, where electronic cigarettes guarantee the cleanliness of the air as the kilometers between Moscow and St Petersburg are swallowed up, I have found my way to hear some cellos, and more besides.

First off, right at the bottom of the classical music listings, there was the Ensemble of Violoncellists of St Petersburg. I turned up at the venue, a recently restored Estonian church, with no idea of what to expect. I was vaguely recalling the night, some ten years ago, when I went to a jazz club in Samara: I had been thinking intimate smoky basement -- and I joined orderly rows of audience in a vast hall to listen to a four hour long concert of hopping big band music on a stage hung with a banner proclaiming, Soviet-style, glory to geologists.

(Lest I was overstating the dissolution of all difference between Russian and Western ways in my previous post, let me just say that on the way to the concert I had an amusing experience of Russia's all-too-often flagging (but evolving) culture of customer service: I went into a shop and asked for a bottle of mineral water. The sales assistant pressed some buttons on the till, then--ever so slowly--turned away from me, took up a comb, looked into a small mirror that was hanging on the partition that divided the drinks counter from the dairy products counter, and carefully combed her fringe a few times. She turned slowly back to me, and asked, moodily, "Is that all?")

On entering this cleanly painted, plain wooden Lutheran church just round the corner from the Mariinsky Theatre, we were handed a programme and a pen, with the instructions to rate each piece with points on a scale of one to ten. For an instant, I thought I'd come to see some kind of strange talent contest, and not convinced I'd understood correctly, I asked my neighbour what this was all about. "Just so they know what people like best," she told me. No contest, then -- just a bit of audience engagement.

There were 17 short numbers on the programme -- ranging from Rachmaninov to Chuck Berry, from Ukrainian folk dance to the Pink Panther. The arrangements were pretty great, and the eight cellists were joined by a soprano from the Mariinsky for a few numbers -- including, to my delight, Villa-Lobos' Aria from Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5, which I had stumbled through, piecemeal, in the string orchestra workshop in San Francisco last summer. My other favourite was probably the arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie's Night in Tunis...translated into marvellous jazzy cello riffing... Biased toward the cello I may be, but with that versatility, who needs any other instrument...

I'm not sure I was fully committed to the point allocation aspect of the evening -- but I nonetheless recorded my scores for each number (minimal distinctions between generally superlative responses--an opinion largely shared, my sneaks revealed, with my neighbour, and judging by the hall's response, with most of the audience, too) and dutifully handed in my sheet at the end.

I'd never heard a cello choir concert before, nor a concert with such a varied programme -- and as well as great musicianship, there was also what seemed like a good dose of adventurousness in exploiting the cello's potential. A couple of pieces were a little heavy on the romantic-sentimental side for me, but overall there was something quite refreshing about the whole concert (and which made me think of the conversation some fellow cello-bloggers had had a while back about concert programmes and the profiles of dwindling audiences): moving easily between such a range of genres, these Petersburg cellists quite openly and enthusiastically combined some serious artistry with music's emotional transports and an unabashed experience of entertainment. And as a result, while the music wasn't at all amateur, the feeling of community among the public (of around 80 people, probably) was somehow more akin to my memories of (English) village hall events than to the solemnity and urbanity of a concert hall.