Reality Writes #5: Perfect

NOTE: This piece is my interpretation of the “translation” assignment from the 2019 “Reality Writes” project from The Literal Challenge. My interpretation was a bit loose.

Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites – the Prelude played by Yo-Yo Ma in the video linked above. Why that piece, when it’s not rock or pop or blues? Because it’s simple, but deceptively so.

Pay attention to it. There’s almost no use of extended positions (that’s when you reach down toward the bridge and play far down on the fingerboard (which is technically playing ‘high’ because the notes are higher)). There are almost no double-stops (that’s chords to you guitarists). The melody isn’t terribly sophisticated.

And yet… it’s the measure of a cellist’s skill, of whether they play with emotion or are simply good ‘technical’ players. It’s a required part of the repertoire for every conservatory audition, in every country in the world. If you can’t manage a credible Prelude, you don’t get past round one.

Jacqueline du Pré played it with every bit of her depression infusing the notes. Ophélie Gaillard plays it with warmth and wisdom and a sort of bemusement that makes it as French as she is, for all Bach was German. Rostropovich, Casals – they each had their own spin as well.

But when Ma plays it, especially in his studio recording, you can hear what’s underneath the music. Listen carefully. You can tell when his fingers meet the ebony of the fingerboard beneath the strings, but you can also detect the faint ring when his fingers leave the strings. Good cellists don’t rely on their thumbs – a practice exercise is to play études without using your thumb at all – but you can hear his thumb contact the saddle of the cello when he does move into extended positions. And you can hear his breath.

If you know the piece, you can discern when Ma’s pitch is a little off (it’s the beauty of live performance – the reality and impact often lie in the flaws), when he doesn’t attack the strings in quite the right way. His cello has a subtle burr note in the lower registers.

Look carefully. When the bow is really raspy you can see traces of rosin fly off it. You can see the muscle control Ma has, in the way an up bow (when you push the bow) has the same volume and strength as the easier down bow (when you pull).

Bach. Unaccompanied. Deceptively simple.

Utterly perfect.

Perfectly flawed.


Photo by DXL on Unsplash

Sunday Brunch: Cello Hands

My latest Sunday Brunch piece, “Cello Hands” is up at All Things Girl. music6_by_KarpatiGabor_via_MorgueFileAn excerpt is below, but you can read the whole thing here: Sunday Brunch: Cello Hands.

I knew what a cello was, of course, because when I was much younger (five or six) I’d been gifted with a copy of Captain Kangaroo’s album of “Peter and the Wolf,” where he introduces all the orchestral instruments and tells you what characters they represent. (To this day the bassoon reminds me of a happy, sloppy, drunk man, but that’s another story.) “Okay,” I said. “Why not?”

Now, while nine may seem incredibly young and innocent to the average adult, it’s actually a pretty advanced age at which to start learning music, especially for stringed instruments. I’d always been a singer, and I could pick things up pretty quickly, and knew that a quarter note was short and a whole note was long, but this was different. This wasn’t me picking out melodies on my grandmother’s ancient, out-of-tune-except-in-summer-when-the-humidity-made-the-cracked-soundboard-sound-intact piano. This was learning how to think in a whole new language, and literally see the music and then be able to make it.

Dracula Under Glass


I’m not generally a fan of Philip Glass. I mean, I like his music better than I like, say, the music of John Cage, but when it comes to orchestra and quartet music, minimalism is just not my style.

However, earlier this evening I was poking around YouTube because after a friend introduced me to “chambersoul” musician Shana Tucker’s awesome fusion of classical, jazz, soul and folk forms – and did I mention she’s a cellist? – I found that my interest in my own cello was renewed. It’s been sitting in the closet for over a year, partly because I haven’t been in the mood to play, and partly because my hands hurt from so much typing, and partly because the C-string needs to be replaced and I’m terrified the string will hit me in the eye during the process.

But I digress.

So I was poking around iTunes, because I’m all about instant gratification, and I found a song by CelloFourte (aka Tate Olsen) that I quite like, even though his band (Skillet) is largely unknown to me. (I’m even less of a Christian music/Christian rock fan than I am a Glass or Cage fan, because while I believe everyone is entitled to self expression, I think praise music is a bit smarmy. To me, it always comes across as insincere. (I think they doth PRAISE too much.))

But browsing for music is all about finding the unexpected, and so I was surprised to come across a Kronos Quartet album called Dracula. Now, the Kronos Quartet has been in business almost as long as I’ve been alive and their repertoire includes a healthy blend of contemporary, classical and contemporary classical (no, that is NOT an oxymoron – it refers to modern music composed in a classical style). Even though they seem to be partial to Glass, I generally like their albums.

But Dracula? Really?? Could it be that one of my favorite quartets had celebrated one of my favorite stories?

As it turns out, it could. The album isn’t at all recent, but is the recording of Kronos Quartet’s performance of Philip Glass’s Dracula quartet, which is basically a modern, alternative score to the original 1931 movie which starred Bela Lugosi. In fact, KQ has played the piece live, under the movie, more than once.

The music alone is amazing – it really feels scary, mysterious, creepy, cautious, hopeful, and triumphant at various stages. As I have a DVD of the movie, I’m considering playing the two together some dark October evening (it begs for a dark October evening. Dracula doesn’t work in the late summer twilight. Trust me on this).

Meanwhile, I found a YouTube clip, of the music and the film, which I’ve shared below.