This past Thursday, I went to a performance at the Kaplan Penthouse of visiting German musicians presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. The program closed with a piece for two cellos by Thomas Demenga, performed with his brother Patrick, that was an extended rumination on the cello: what is it; what sounds can it make; why must it be played thus? There was an 11-note chromatic jazz line, allusions to birds in an Australian rainforest, fingers on the cello body, bowing on the peg, audible breathing that forced me to be aware of the human agency in performing the music, cellos turned sideways and played like dulcimers...
Last night, I was at a birthday party full of my colleagues from the Graduate Center. I count myself incredibly lucky to be part of an academic community that is on the one side vibrant, rich, and brilliant, and on the other, perhaps more importantly, full of supportive, non-competitive, friendly people. Everyone was animatedly discussing their research (19th-century New England symphonists, African diaspora in Haiti, cumbia music from Mexico in New York City), but one friend was just beginning his dissertation on Giacinto Scelsi (1905-88). He was drawn to the fact that Scelsi became enamored with, fascinated by, and ultimately obsessed with the idea that all music emanates from a single note and devoted his compositional life to mystically exploring this sound.
These anecdotes encapsulate a large part of why European music of the latter half of the 20th century is so alluring for me -- its practitioners delve deeply into music not only with impeccable technique and thorough training but also with philosophical intent and rigor. In terms of the bigger picture, I suppose it doesn't really matter if humanity ever knows what it means to cello or if we find the pitch from which all music flows (this weekend's protests place in sharp relief the more pressing concerns of the day, for one). In a way, such erudition feels selfish. Ivory tower, shunning the world, kooky. Yet, in the moment, Demenga's performance had me convinced me otherwise.
At the end of November, I premiered a set of newly-commissioned 15 one-minute works ("Fifteen Minutes of Fame") for flute and soprano with Mary Hubbell. One composer, Fabio Monzu Rosselli, traveled from Rome for the performance, and before the concert he and I were flitting through several conversation topics, as one does when meeting someone for the first time. We spoke about my recent travels in Campania, his musical career, and Rome before, via Goethe, things took a darker turn. He began passionately lamenting, in contrast to the grand cultural history of Italy, the current state of affairs in Italian culture and taste -- how standards were dropping, how people didn't appreciate real art anymore, how what we as artists do feels futile. I offered Dylan Thomas as a rebuttal:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
This is how the hours in the practice room are spent; this is the armor we wear on stage going into battle. We fight for philosophy and erudition and beautiful things that might otherwise wink out into darkness. It is not necessarily a fight for classical music itself (some have already declared it dead), but rather it is a fight for the inquisitive artistic impulse and the social infrastructure that supports such inquiry, a fight for the importance of yearning in and of itself.
We must know what it means to cello.