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.

Perfect.

Photo by DXL on Unsplash

The Fungus-Fearers

Benihana-Piccadilly-4

There were three of them, sitting at the end of our table at Benihana, the Fungus-Fearers.

Oh, that isn’t what they called themselves, of course.  It’s what I called them in my head.

In reality, they simply looked at their bowls of mushroom soup and elected their pumps-and-pearls wearing spokeswoman to speak for them, her prissy voice pushed from her pursed lips as if she resented having to speak of such things.

“We neglected to inform you earlier,” she said, her tone haughty, disdainful, “but we  – none of us – do not care – for mushrooms.”

The chef, an affable local man who had engaged the other five of us – my husband and our friend, and a fun couple at the opposite end from the Fungus Fearers – quite easily, immediately became contrite. “I’m so sorry,” he said, as if the fault was his. “Are you allergic? Your meal doesn’t come with any more mushrooms, and neither does hers – ” He gestured to the cardigan-clad younger woman between the one in pearls and her bald, male, companion, obviously their daughter “- but yours does.” He continued, addressing the man, whose body was angled toward his family, and hand was cradled protectively around his glass of chilled Chablis, as if he might not be allowed another.

“No, not allergic. We just… dislike them.”

“Alright then,” the chef replied. “Because if you were allergic, I’d make sure your food was cooked before they touched the grill.”

Dinner proceeded.

The girl, who had insisted she’d ordered tuna, not chicken, then refused to eat the tuna because it was rolled in sesame seeds. (Apparently Fungus Fearers are incapable of reading menus.)

While the rest of us laughed with the chef, and with each other, becoming temporary friends, though we’d never met before and would never meet again, the three at the end remained stiff and aloof.

Why, I wondered throughout our meal, and after, would you come to a place like Benihana where you know you’ll be seated with strangers (they were clearly familiar with the setup) if you don’t like sharing space with strangers?

And how could anyone possibly be so agitated over mushrooms?