Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Bottom of the Ocean

In my post the other day, I made reference to a Nicole Krauss story in which the narrator considers the possibility that her inability to write might be connected with the fact that the work in progress had "the potential for perfection and that this possibility finally silenced me." When I read the story and while I was writing about it, I found myself thinking about a story that the novelist Mark Salzman tells (in Lawrence Weschler's profile "The Novelist and the Nun" in the October 2, 2000 New Yorker magazine) about seeing Yo-Yo Ma in concert. Salzman had begun playing the cello at about age seven, and he had played for about ten years when his parents took him to Tanglewood to see Yo-You Ma in concert.

"And that was one of transformative experiences of my life...I'll never forget how Yo-Yo Ma walked out onto the stage. I mean, most performers walk out completely stiff, like this, and you can sense the sobriety, the utter focus, the intense concentration — the barely concealed terror. And I don't mean that as a criticism: the techical level expected of performers these days is so insanely high that you'd be crazy if you weren't terrified. Yo-Yo, by contrast, came out like this—totally relaxed, guffawing, almost slap-happy, casually waving to friends in the audience, you know, 'Oh wow, great, what are you doing here?' Completely, but completely, unfazed.

"And then he started to play. Bach— the fifth suite for unaccompanied cello. And his playing was so beautiful, so original, so intelligent, so effortless that by the end of the first movement I knew my cello career was over. I kid you not. People talk about Yo-Yo Ma's superhuman technique. Let me tell you: superhuman technique is only the tip of the Yo-Yo Ma iceberg. What really sank my ship was how much he was obviously enjoying himself: he was lost in the music, freed by it, speaking through it, in love with it. He was enjoying himself as much playing as most of the rest of us do when we're listening, and as I myself never did when playing, not to speak of practicing.

"When I heard Yo-Yo Ma play, I suddenly realized that I wasn't just inadequate, I wasn't even making music. I was training to be a showoff, that's all. My playing was to true music what a résumé is to a real piece of writing. My true calling, I realized, was not the cello, never had been... So I put the cello into deep storage, and, reporting to Yale, I majored in Chinese.
At this point, Salzman's story seems to serve as a pretty good example of how the experience of perfection can be, at least initially, daunting, discouraging, enervating. Once you have a real sense of what the possibilities are and set to work on your own, whatever it is that you manage to produce is going to look pretty undernourished.

Fortunately, you don't have to stop there. Salzman himself recounts how, having used this discouraging experience as fuel for a novel he was writing (The Soloist), he was able to return to playing music once again:

"As I was coming to the end of the book, I realized how badly I wanted this cellist to be able to enjoy playing once again—not as a concert soloist but just as someone who loves playing for the sake of the music, who strives for the ideal that music represents but isn't destroyed by failure to reach that ideal. And as I was writing that scene I had the stereo playing in the background, and on came Bach's Fifth Suite, the one that Yo-Yo Ma had been playing the day he tore through the hull of my ship and sent me to the bottom of the ocean. I was describing this moment when the cellist, alone, drags the bow across the strings, just to hear the music come alive, and how it does come alive for him, and how now when he makes mistakes he no longer cares, he doesn't think of them as a crime against music, but, rather, as an act of nature, like the random cracks that show up in those Oriental teacups everybody's always raving about.

"After I'd completed that scene, I remember thinking, If I can do that for him, why not for me? So I rented a cello—my own was still back in Connecticut in deep storage—and I tried acting out the scene I had just written, and it was wonderful. That was ten years ago, and I've been playing every day since, and I can honestly say that nowadays, playing, I feel the way Yo-Yo Ma looked. How I sound is an entirely different matter.

Followup notes: In 1996 Mark Salzman got to play onstage with Yo-Yo Ma in a concert which was broadcast nationally on the television program Live From Lincoln Center. The rest of Weschler's profile details how Salzman was able to solve the structural problems he was facing in writing the novel Lying Awake by borrowing structural elements from another of Bach's cello suites. And how he eventually gave a combined reading and cello concert with parallel pieces from the two works.

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