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.

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