My Thrilling Coffee Shop Visit

So for some reason I can’t fathom, the coffee shop where I like to go has decided to play the same damn 80s tape over and over and over. No matter when I come in, early morning, late afternoon, midday, there it is, belting out Michael Jackson or Madonna or Bob Marley or one of several one-hit-wonder songs from the era that, if heard, will stick in one’s brain for HOURS and DAYS after. This has been going on for weeks. What happened, did they lose their iPod? They should run across the street to the little used shop and buy something else. Anything. Even a different 80s tape. Please?

I don’t miss Papa Don’t Preach. I don’t. I heard it enough in the 80s. Madonna can sort of rhyme. Preach. Deep. I get it.

I don’t mind Thriller so much. In fact, I really kind of like Michael Jackson, freak show that he was, but I keep wanting to claw the air when I hear it, and I’m afraid the rest of the coffee shop won’t dance with me if I start, so…

Prince’s girl doesn’t have to be rich or cool to be his girl. She just has to leave it all up to him and give him a kiss. He also doesn’t want her to act her shoe size. I have a question about this. If your age is 3 and your shoe size is 10, like my daughter, does this advice still apply? I think maybe he would rather she act her shoe size in this case. Also, is there a point at which age and shoe size align? Maybe an 8 year old would wear size 8 ladies, but she would sure have some really big feet. I’ll have to mull that one over.

As an aside, there are two years out of every decade where birth year juxtaposes with graduation year: 1946 and 1964 and 1968 and 1986. That’s it. There aren’t any others.

The Thompson Twins. Yeah, well. I admit it. I had their tape. I played it a lot until one part got too thin and finally broke. I had to pull the little parts out, cut the thin part away, and tape it. Then the song skipped. You can’t do anything like this with CDs. I tried. I had a CD with a deep scratch that just would not play, so I used one of those CD repair kits that is supposed to fill in the groove. It didn’t work — it broke my CD player. I don’t recommend it. Tapes weren’t great because you had to fast forward or rewind or turn over to get where you wanted on the song, but you could keep taping them together forever if you wanted. My patience for whatever they played wore out before they ever did.

Another aside, did you know drinking blackberry juice will stop diarrhea? Yep. Seems counterintuitive, but it works.

I wish my coffee shop would change the music and that when it does, it would turn down the volume. I can’t think when the music is too loud, even when I like it.

Ooh. Something not 80s. Marvin Gaye. I have a thing for Marvin Gaye. So hot, and that voice, that amazing, delicious voice… Okay. I’ll stop.

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Dolly and Steve, What Have You Done to Your Faces?

Dear Steve Martin and Dolly Parton,

Your age would have looked better than whatever it is you have done to your faces. You both have always managed to present an aura of self-possession through which the surgeries have exposed a fissure, a dissonance.  It’s a shock, frankly. There are other entertainment figures who, if they were to undergo such drastic and obvious alterations, it would seem in character with the person they have presented to the public over the years. But not you.

It’s ironic too, that on some level you were seeking to pass as youthful, with that sort of attractiveness, and in your bizarre caricatures, you have made yourself even more noticeable, but not for the reasons you sought. The attractiveness of your age would have been enough. Having spent years watching you, we would have understood the grace it takes to remain public and mature.

In any case, you surprised me. You under met my expectations. I do hope on a personal level that the extraordinary surgeries have helped you to understand how little important what you desired was to who you are.

Interview with the Author of The Cello Suites, Eric Siblin

Described as “part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery,” The Cello Suites weaves together three narratives:  the disappearance of Bach’s cello suites in the eighteenth century, Pablo Casals’s discovery and popularization of the music, and author Eric Siblin’s quest for the truth behind the suites today.  Mr. Siblin graciously agreed to an interview, and we spent over an hour discussing his book, the music, and the beauty of the cello.

LG:  I was fascinated by the Walter Joachim story.  That was one of my favorite parts of the book.  It was just timed so perfectly, and it seemed incredible to run into somebody with that kind of personal history.  I was really curious about how that acquaintance went, how long it lasted, and what it was like to run into someone with his background.
ES:    Walter seemed like the music fleshed out before my very eyes.  It was wonderful to stumble upon him.  When I heard about his story I was just amazed and spellbound that somebody living a few blocks from where I was living had such a profound connection to the music, and somebody who I was crossing paths with every week, but not knowing, had turned out to be such an embodiment of the music.  It was just delightful to get to know him.

Unfortunately it happened late in his life.  I think I met him in October and I think by Christmas he had passed away.  So I didn’t get that much time to hang out with Walter, but I would regularly bump into him on the streets, the main street that he lived on, Monkland Avenue, and I would walk with him either to the cafe and have lunch with him, or escort him (because he walked with a certain amount of frailty) back to his high-rise apartment, and started to do some interviews with him as well with a tape recorder, but had only gotten up I think to 1938 or something, when he passed away.  It was fairly short-lived my encounter with Walter, but it was really pivotal for the writing of the book because firstly, it just spurred me on and got me quite enthusiastic, and secondly, Walter urged me to take up the cello, so that also gave the idea of the book a shot in the arm.

LG:  Yes, the timing seemed really fortuitous.
ES:    Yeah, so it was wonderful timing and terrific to meet him at that stage.  It was perfect to meet him period.  He had a real joie de vivre, and he was a great raconteur who would regale me with stories of music history, his own life story, which was fascinating, and music gossip, cellist gossip.  It was great.  And he was right, by trying to pick up the cello, in a really rudimentary way, it was also gave me insight into the music and helped me, and helped the book get written, I think.  I never sat down at the outset and thought, okay, what solid ground do I have to cover in order to turn this into a book?  What activities can I do to make it readable?  It was really an organic process that stemmed from own genuine curiosity.

I was really trying to connect-the-dots that comprised the music, and often it was by happenstance.  The case with Walter, was one.  There were other times.  I was in Europe once doing other work and I would inevitably look around to see if there were other connections where I happened to be to the Cello Suites.  Sure enough, often something would pop up.

For example, I was in Brussels a few times, and I would not otherwise think of going to Brussels to research the Cello Suites, but I was there for other work reasons and I would look around, and Brussels produced a few different scenes that made their way into the book.  One, the first cellist I interviewed was living not far from Brussels in Belgium, Mischa Maisky, and I interviewed him.  Then it turned out when I was researching Cello Suite No. 6 and grappling with the sort of mystery of the five-stringed instrument in Cello Suite No. 6, I learned of this fellow Dmitry Badiarov, a Russian immigrant luthier who was building violoncello piccolos, and had strong opinions about Cello Suite No. 6.  In fact all the Cello Suites from his point of view were written for the violoncello piccolo.  So I got to go hear him play and interview him.  On another occasion I wandered into this store where I found a business card advertising a store called Prelude.  Following my nose I had to go there.  That was another serendipitous happening.

LG:  Did you ever have imagine walking into some unusual little store and finding the actual Cello Suites?
ES:    Oh, I suppose you could file that under fantasy.  I’m not sure that I ever expected it to happen, but kind of operating at the fantasy level, I think when I felt it most vividly was when I was in the little shop called Prelude.  I certainly didn’t set out to go to that shop with the idea of finding anything.  But I had that sort of magical feeling that you’re sort of stepping into your own fantasy in a way and your own book where a 13-year-old Pablo Casals stumbles upon the Gruetzmacher edition in Barcelona in a second-hand bookshop.  You know how that scene was so pivotal I think for Pablo Casals, for the history of the music, and in my case for imagining there was a story in the music.  Here I was at sort of the end of my journey, kind of walking into, literally, a prelude of my own imagination.  That was a really neat feeling.  I can’t say that I seriously expected to personally find the manuscript.  To do that, I think you would have to be rooting in castles and be very familiar with German history.

LG:  And with the war, so much got damaged.
ES:    Yeah.  People do look for Bach compositions and things do turn up fairly regularly, but I never seriously thought that I would be the one to unearth it, beyond daydreaming.  I did think that well, if somebody else found it while I was writing the book, that would have been interesting.

LG:  While doing the research you said that you were often there on other trips, so was the book a sideline project you were working on while you were living your regular life and doing your regular day job?
ES:    Yes, very much so.  For most of the time I was a freelance magazine writer and an independent documentary film maker, during that period.  It began when I was still writing for the daily newspaper The Montreal Gazette, but I quit that job while the book was being researched.  I had a day job throughout the process and was writing in my spare time.  [I’m glad the book took time to write] because there was such a learning curve for me that I think if someone said to me here is fifty-thousand dollars, write this book in one year, it wouldn’t have been a very good book. It certainly wouldn’t have been as developed as the book that got written, because I benefitted from having all this time.  The ideas had time to marinate in my head, and I had time to just stumble upon people like Walter and accident upon business cards that advertised a shop called Prelude and make sense of what was essentially a pretty complicated story if you factor in eighteenth-century Europe and history and the slow unification of Germany, and the militarization of Prussia, and the Spanish civil war, and the life of Bach.  There were a lot of dots to connect so I think it is good that I had a lot of time to do it.

LG:  And Dimitry Badiarov, the fellow who believes the suites were made for a 5 stringed instrument, did he play all of them for you?
ES:    No.  I heard he has a recording out that just came out recently, but I haven’t heard it.  No, he did not play them all.  He is in Holland.  He just feels that Suites 1- 5 were written for a 4-string violin piccolo, and the last suite was written for a 5 string violin piccolo.  Part of his argument is that nowhere in the Anna Magdalena manuscript is there a reference to a cello.  He could be right for all we know.  It is one of the reasons this music works so fabulously well on so many different instruments.  If you had only heard all the suites played on the lute, you would say, “Well, yes, this was a composition for the lute.”  You wouldn’t even think of the cello if you didn’t know any better.

LG:  I found especially interesting your description of taking cello lessons.  It gave me a little boost to me in my own playing because to me so much of the time it just sounds bloody awful, and I wonder why am I doing this?  But then I have moments where it sounds beautiful and I can feel it in my body, and I realize this is why I’m doing it. I was curious about your cello lessons, how much you learned, and how much you played, and why you stopped.
ES:    I am a firm believer in amateurs.  I think today society is kind of a almost instructing us to be spectators, not players or creators in life, and we get so taken up with the wizardry of virtuosos in all the arts that people don’t feel they can be good enough to play, or never develop the desire so I think picking up the instrument at any age, or any art form, is a terrific thing to do.  I play guitar so I don’t play any other instrument, so learning the cello as you mentioned, as you alluded to, is kind of a daunting thing after a certain age.

I think the bowing in particular is a real challenge.  It was kind of like a combination for me of calligraphy, golf, and archery, none of which I know how to do, and so that was tough, but my left hand was okay because I play the guitar.  After getting over the trauma that there are no frets on the fingerboard, it wasn’t as bad as I might of feared.  There is something really quite special about finding your way to the correct note, real or imagined, just intuiting the intonation.  If you’ve never done it before and you’re used to frets, you would tend to think this is absurd, I don’t have a hope in hell of landing in the right spot, but you do, and it feels great.

Likewise, the great sort of rumbling and reverberations of this majestic instrument running through your whole body is a thing of great visceral pleasure, I think. So even though it doesn’t sound great at times, and you’re forced to play really Mickey Mouse material at the beginning, I think that the progress inevitably proceeds and it feels wonderful. That was my experience, and certainly when I got to the point where I could play some bonafide Bach ditties from this book called Bach for Cello, it’s great.  However watered down and basic those pieces are you still get a sense of Bach’s music in the phrasing.  The genius of Bach’s phrasing somehow comes out, and for me that was really exciting.

I didn’t stick with the instrument right to the end of the book, I think for reasons of time.  I realized that I wasn’t going to learn a Cello Suite very quickly, and I at some point quite spontaneously got the idea that I could try to tackle this on guitar.  I have just been a folk rock guitarist.  I never played classical guitar.  I took the cello notes and transposed them on the guitar.  It was kind of goofy.  I was playing essentially baselines on guitar, that mimicked the beginning of the first Cello Suites.  And then it didn’t take very long to learn that in fact there were bonafide arrangements of the Cello Suites for guitar, so I bought some guitar tablature, which I don’t read, I don’t have facility for reading for guitar.  I am used to doing what is called guitar tab, so slowly, measure by measure, in a real painstaking way, I was able to figure out the prelude of the first cello suite, so that sort of displaced the cello experience for me.  Also I didn’t own a cello, I was renting a cello, and paying for lessons, and doing a lot of things in life, so that is how my cello lessons came to a close.

LG:  How far did you get with them?  Did you move out of first position and were you doing vibrato?
ES:    No. I didn’t get beyond just those first few pieces in that book Bach for Cello.  Ultimately it was a feeling that I’m a respectable guitar player, but I was really a beginner at cello, so I decided to devote what time I had in life to playing an instrument I was fairly good at, so that is what put me off. If I were ever to get a cello somehow, I would love to pick it up occasionally.  I have actually dreamed about some of those Anna Magdalena notebook pieces.

I might get back to it someday in retirement.  It was a case of spreading myself too thin.  I don’t have that much time for music playing and I can do more with the guitar.  I’m more ambitious with the guitar and I learned a few other classical pieces on the guitar.  I still play popular music.  It wasn’t a total irreversible conversion.  After I wrote the book I found myself free to listen to all sorts of music which is what I do now, which includes Bach and the whole gamut of classical music.

Another thing I really liked about Bach was that if you try to get a sense of Bach, if you look at the people Bach was influenced by, and then Bach’s career, and his sons, and all the musicians Bach influenced, it is a pretty nifty way of getting a crash course in classical music.  Also I had the career of Casals and the cello repertoire to add to that, so it was a great way of getting up to speed with something that I think intimidates people.  How do I start with this colossal, sometimes intellectually intimidating, vast body of work, you know?  People don’t know where to start.  In my case I feel really fortunate that I had this really terrific, little spring board that I jumped on.  I was just so genuinely and intrigued about the real story.

LG:  The letter that Bach wrote to try and secure a position, and they are so obsequious, it grates against a modern mind. I thought it was funny too how he seemed to say, “This job doesn’t pay enough.”
ES:    We have to be forgiving in someways because there are certain conventions that were de riguer, that were practiced and expected in those days.  They are kind of unseemly.  In fact, when you read about the life of Bach, he wasn’t some kind of wimp who was cow-towing to whatever authority happened to be around.  He was kind of a rebellious type who really stood up for his own rights, particularly in the workplace, and his art.

He really knew the value of the currency that was used in those days.  Some people have called him a bit of a cheapskate, but on the other hand, when you have 20 children and you’ve got a really demanding job that includes the music in a substantial city like Leipzig, and running the music of a Lutheran boarding school and churches, on top of busily cranking out what is going to be the greatest output of music for all time, you’ve got a lot on your plate and you have to check the bills and see how much money is coming in.  He didn’t lead the sort of lackadaisical life of a sort of romantic and happily impoverished artist.  I think that helps explain part of his genius.  He wasn’t sitting around thinking what music is going to be popular or going to be considered a masterpiece.  He was really busy in the here and now. He must have really been living in the moment, I think, he was so busy.  It has a nice ending, his story.  Even though he wasn’t considered famous in his lifetime, and he has been rendered ultra famous by posterity, a man who had his nose to the grindstone and was just doing his best on a day to day basis ended up producing this music that had such everlasting allure.

Shello Chopping

I have been dabbling with the idea of buying a cello.  I have been taking lessons for a while now and renting a cello that actually sounds rather good.  The rental price applies to the purchase of a new cello, but only for the first year.  With this in mind, my teacher and I decided to head to the luthier’s to try some out and see what could be had within my budget.  Cello shopping.  Shello chopping!

When one goes to purchase a cello, there are usually practice rooms in which to try out various choices. I called the luthier ahead of time and let them know I would be in with my instructor to try cellos.  When we got there, the saleswoman brought in six to try.  None of them sounded better than my rental cello.  Even when my instructor played, they sounded screetchy and flat.

A note about the rental cello.  When I originally went to rent it, my instructor had informed me that the shop had an excellent rental cello, with a lovely, full-bodied sound.  She hoped I would be able to get this cello to rent, and indeed I did.  Nearly every week she comments about its pretty sound.  After having gone now and listened to many cellos, I can see what she means.

Since the first six were not worthy, we asked to see a few more in the next price bracket up.  These did not sound any better than the rental cello, and cost over a $1000 more.  So we asked to see some in the next price bracket.

Another side note.  About a week before this shopping trip, I had been to the same shop to purchase a violin for my daughter.  I told them my price range, and they brought in 8 for us to try.  One of the workers in the shop came in to play for us.  Two stood out, and one of those was obviously superior.  When we went to purchase it, however, it turned out the price was about $2000 more than I had intended to spend.  We sent that one back and got the second choice, which was in our price range.

I bring this story up because while cello shopping, something similar occurred.  The saleswoman brought in three cellos in the price category that was at the top of what I could spend (and this was more than what I really wanted to spend, but I figured it would not hurt to hear them).  These cellos were far superior to the previous lot, and one Czechoslovakian cello shone above all.  It had a full, round, gorgeous sound.  When I picked it up to play, I felt a welling of emotion through my body and my chest.  It reminded me of a dressage horse, eloquent and beautiful.  Even my playing sounded lovely on this cello.  I decided to take it home for a week when it turned out the price was $1000 more than I had told them I could spend.  I wondered then, whether this was their m.o., to bring in a batch of instruments with one far superior to the others in the hope that an unwitting buyer would fall so in love, that money be damned, they would buy the instrument.  I’m not so easily swayed, and my budget is my budget because I don’t have any more to spend, and I don’t use credit.  I decided to take the gorgeous thing home, but I knew the visit would be temporary.

Another big part of the trip entailed trying various bows.  It was not until that point that I realized how much a difference a good bow makes when playing a cello.  The rental bow I have is a piece of crap.  It is a lot of work to balance properly and requires effort to run along the strings.  I tried at least a dozen bows that day and discovered how much easier it is to play with a decent bow.  I could feel the difference.  It was amazing.  And the better bows sounded better.  Even I, rough and new, didn’t sound half bad with a good bow.  I found the bow that best matched the lovely Czechoslovakian cello and arranged to take them home.

During the week, I played both the Czech cello and my rental. I played my rental with the nice bow and while it sounded better than the rental bow, the good bow was not the best match for my rental cello (bows sound different on different cellos, so one has to find a good pair).  I loved the beautiful sounds I made on the Czech cello.  However, I realized that it was outside my price range.  And having listened to a lot of cellos, I saw that my little rental actually did sound pretty good.  I decided I would try to find my rental a good bow partner and keep her for a while.  In the long run, I might spend a bit more, but for now, the cello I have does just fine.  If I ever get to the point where my playing wouldn’t make people want to hide under a rock, I will look again at spending more money, and who knows?  Maybe the Czech cello will still be there, waiting for me.  I can dream.