ursa thoughts: cry, cry, cry
Art is an essential part of the human experience. The end.
It is possible that art makes kids smarter, stronger, funnier, richer (um, no), mathier, less-drug-doing-er...it is also possible that doing art NOW will offset dementia, alzheimers, other diseases later in life...but I think art is special because there is some sort of universal, yet highly individualized, element that is found in it. Is it the fifth element? Maybe. I didn’t actually see that movie, I just skipped to the Lucia di Lammermoor parts on YouTube.
So this blog is going to be about Art. It’s about our experience with transcendental truth. Each entry will deal with some shared emotion, life choice, school topic, romantic entanglement, etc., that involves art. But please don’t just read our out-pouring of emotional strife and dark secrets and high school angst...I hope you will share with us.
Okay, so one very quick and easy way to tell if someone else is experiencing an emotion is to ask yourself this question: Is that person crying? Tears are a sure-fire way to tell that someone is feeling something. Yes it is most likely sadness but it could also be pain, joy, onion-smelling, fear, relief, a jalapeno popper in your own cornea…
I am 90% sure that, at some point in our careers as musicians, MUSIC has made each Ursa member cry. So, let’s get right to it. Click on their name below to read their thoughts. And before I forget; there is a delightfully uplifting YouTube playlist that goes along with this entry...enjoy!
I looked at the prompt for this blog and thought: well, this will be hard because I rarely cry. Then I started going through times I have been moved to tears by music. And I realized, it’s a lot.
I teared up during the rehearsal for the massive performance of Terry Riley’s In C that Ursa recently participated in. (Witnessing 100 musicians working together to become something more than the sum of its parts moved me.) I tear up frequently watching my friends perform. (Like a proud mama, but a friend. A proud friend-mama.) I tear up almost every time I listen to the first phrase of the violin solo in “Attaboy” on the wonderful Goat Rodeo album. (It reminds me that everything will be ok, and that there is so much happiness in the world.) And I am not ashamed to admit that I balled the first time I heard the Across The Universe version of “Let It Be.” (Ok, maybe I’m a little ashamed, but you have to admit, it’s powerful.)
Apparently, I am actually quite an emotional person. I feel things often, and deeply. And then I hide them away from all but a few of the people I’m closest to. But I am slowly getting more comfortable expressing these reactions. And I know that this is due, at least in part, to becoming a musician.
It’s not necessarily music itself that has caused me to become more comfortable expressing emotion. It is the act of performing this music; the act of expressing the emotion that the music represents in a way that the audience will understand.
Call it music therapy, call it growing up, call it whatever you want. The point is that I cannot see myself doing anything else.
Generally, I’m not too crazy about writing blog posts, let alone sharing opinions with more than just close friends. If you ask me a question though, I will give you an answer. So to start my first entry ever: When Has Music Made Me Cry? Currently, with the state of my memory, there is only one piece of music that pushed me past the edge; my first hearing of American Howl Quartet, by George Flynn. I can’t remember all the factors that were involved with that night, but that piece etched itself into my memory quite well. If you don’t know thie piece, I would encourage you to check it out. A setting of Howl by beat-poet, Allen Ginsburg, it’s intense, biting, and full of aggressive energy.
Immediately, something that was striking to me about the performance was that it was scored for a narrator rather than a vocalist. The rest of the ensemble consisted of clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. The piece lasted about 35 minutes, and it was truly an endeavor to endure.
I had a copy of the spoken text on my lap; I was able to read while listening and get a feel for the words. Never had I read something so visceral and expressive. I was drawn to the prose almost instantaneously. As the music was performed, the expression of the poetry was balanced with equal intensity from the instrumentalists. It was loud, borderline insane, and full of brutal gestures. This was endured for about 28 minutes. By that point I was exhausted, and didn’t know how much more I was ready to hear. For me, I had reached a tipping point where the tension was no longer bearable.
When the poem reached the third movement, opening with, “I’m with you in Rockland,” the music changed. It was a change so drastic I could no longer handle it. It was tranquil. After being in a state of stress for so long, hearing music so hushed hit me hard. As I read along with the last portion of Howl, a wave of emotion I had not felt in a long time got the better of me and I broke down. It was still eerie and uneasy, especially since the text was unsettling, but the music had finally frozen. It allowed me to breathe a little easier and meditate on what I had just experienced.
It was this piece that made me realize how important the idea of tension versus relaxation is in music; I experienced both to their fullest extents. The violent intensity of the majority of the piece finally coming down at the end and quietly resolving made me feel an array of heavy emotions I had not yet experienced while listening to music.
I cry a lot, sometimes because of music. I’ve cried while listening to recordings, especially the conclusion of Mahler 2. I’ve cried while playing my violin. My old violin actually had some tear-stains on it. I don’t know why. Yes I do. It’s because when boys didn’t like me during high school, I went to the practice room and played solo Bach while crying. Okay, also during college. Recently, I cried during my own live performance of a piece; Memoria by Federico Garcia-De Castro. But only because it was about a left-wing political leader in Colombia who was assassinated while waiting at the airport to go on vacation with his wife. And the text included his dying words. And I was in Bogotá for this concert. Oh, and when I was a little baby violinist, I used to cry any time another baby violinist played a song I didn’t know yet; I still cry at my own playing when I feel like I’m sucking pretty bad.
Right. I want to talk about a particularly life-alteringly-important time I cried at music. During grad school I went to some Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert. I don’t remember everything on the program, but I do remember that Pinchas Zukerman and Robert Chen were performing the famous Bach Double Concerto. Here’s the thing about that piece: it’s so well known, that it has become lame. I have been playing it at lame gigs since age 9 or 10. It’s so lame that we play it at weddings (the ultimate measure of lameness). Needless to say, I wasn’t psyched to hear the Bach Double, even in the hands of esteemed masters. While we’re on the topic, I also had (and maybe still have) a bit of cynicism regarding “esteemed masters.” I’ve been burned by them before; they had amazing skill years ago, but don’t perform at the same level today, yet still play gobs of concerts and get tons of money. You get the picture; not much had me revved up about this particular concert.
Then the Concerto in D Minor for Two Violins began, and I lost it. ( I would also like to point out that I look beautiful when I cry.) Anyway, these two players were not at all phoning it in. They were playing this work, which is actually a fantastic piece with brilliant counterpoint, with such care! They didn’t worry that little kids play it, they treated it like a masterpiece. I think I cried because it sounded so beautiful, each player producing a powerful but gentle tone, every pitch in the most resonant spot, each phrase shaped and imitated so thoughtfully; but I also cried at the tragedy that was my thinking the Bach Double was lame. In a cheesey conclusion to this tale, I now love playing the Bach Double, and if there is another violinist close to me and you ask us to play it, I will do it for free.
This is a tough question to answer, just because, as a dude, I have a lot of built-in resistances towards crying. For those who don’t know me, I’m also a fairly introverted, even-keeled person. Part of the reason I enjoy music so much is that it allows me to experience my emotions without having to put them into words. While some people may be able to cope with their emotions through other means, such as talking through them with friends, or writing in journals, I’ve always had music, and to try to talk about my feelings using words and have them posted for the whole world to see somehow feels like a betrayal of my identity. My emotional relationship with music is deeply personal and all of my instincts tell me to keep it that way. I’ve only written few sentences of this post, and I’m already tied up in knots of anxiety.
I very rarely shed any kinds of tears at concerts. Maybe once every two or three years. Some of it might have to do with my musical training, which gives me a different lens, perhaps more critical, through which to process music, and it also probably has to do with my personality. Most concerts will leave me energized, contemplative, inspired, or yes, occasionally sleepy, but it would be misleading to suggest that I routinely experience a rush of emotions. So when I do feel some tears coming, that’s when I know I’m experiencing something truly meaningful.
My grandmother died when I was thirteen. I also had a small number of other relatives and family friends that had died while I was a kid, so I was unfortunately no stranger to death and funerals at that point in my life. Her death hurt though. I was old enough to actually appreciate the relationship I was losing, and I had nothing but the kindest memories of my grandmother. Added to that though was the knowledge that I would never have another grandparent. I felt like I was too young to have had that happen, and I thought about how all of my friends at that age still had someone to call grandma or grandpa and probably would for a long time. I was already anticipating all the feelings of envy and sadness I would experience at future school graduations and recitals, because other people would have their grandparents there, and I could not have mine.
Out of all the memories that came from the week of her funeral, the one that is still seared in mind comes from her funeral service, when a singer stood up to sing “Amazing Grace.” I was familiar with the song already, and I had always found its text and melody moving. This time though, at my grandma’s funeral, every single note hit me right in the gut. In those moments, I was experiencing all the emotions I had been feeling over the past week: the feeling of loss, the sorrow for the rest of my family, and the celebration of her life. Each note of each phrase felt like a different stage of grief I needed to go through before the singer could move onto the next note. Just like how the song describes the journey of a man being saved by the grace of God, I felt like I was going on my own journey. I remember how beautiful the singer sounded and all the sounds of crying going around me. And I balled. A lot.
I mentioned before how most of my experiences with crying to music have mostly to do with where I was in my life and less to do with the music I was hearing. In a way, music helps me discover things about myself or helps me make sense of what I feel. If I had just heard the that same singer sing “Amazing Grace” outside the context of my grandmother’s funeral, there was no way it would have elicited the same reaction. In those moments though, I needed the music to help me make sense of it all.
I have cried while performing and listening to the Rachmaninov Sonata for Cello and Piano. I did not shed many tears as I have been diagnosed with dry eye syndrome, disabling me for expressing myself thoroughly through aquatic means, but, alas, that salty liquid has made its way down my cheek more than once with this masterpiece.
One performance that I recall to be particularly moving featured Amit Peled on cello at the Preston Bradley Hall of the Chicago Cultural Center. His deep, rich tone brought the lyrical passages to life with such emotional complexity, it couldn't have been more human. There is a joy that is found in these melodies that is not carefree and not without having overcome some previous struggle. It is a joy that involves wisdom and appreciation for life.
My most recent performance of this sonata featured the famous third movement only. Having each performed the piece in its entirety a number of times prior, my friend and colleague, pianist Rick Ferguson, invited me to close a program with him playing the popular third movement. As I spilled my heart out on stage, I realized how honored I was to be performing this work of art; to be one of the two people sharing this moment with our listeners, many of whom had no idea what surge of energy was about to hit them. Not only in the epic third movement have I cried, but in each of the expansive, lyrical passages in each of the movements.
In many cases an incredible performance reveals genius in both the composition as well as the performer's interpretation. In others, a fine composition may sound dull if it is not executed at the level it was intended or in contrast, the composition is so balanced it "plays itself." While "The Rach" is no different from the rest of the canon in that it is brought to life and justice by highly skilled and invested individuals, it is also a composition so strong that even a less accomplished and experienced player will tug on the audience's heart strings. Thank you, Sergei.
So, this post is supposed to be about music that makes you cry. The sad truth is that, when it comes to music, I am extremely easy to manipulate. Pixar movies, McDonald’s commercials around Christmas-time, that scene in Clerks 2 with Smashing Pumpkin’s 1979. All have brought me to tears at one time or another. The moments that stick with me, though, are when you discover beauty in music that is simple, that might be considered unremarkable.
I recently saw Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito which includes the duet Ah perdona al primo affeto. In school I remembered learning that Mozart’s opera music is known for creating emotional investment in a story that is, let’s face it, probably pretty silly. By the time Ah perdona... begins, we have already sat through a half-hour of exposition for a pretty absurd plot, and I did not have a whole lot of empathy for any of the characters. The melody begins with three notes outlining a major triad, about as simple as it gets, but I immediately knew this was one of those special moments. A couple minutes later the original melody returns, only this time the third note moves up instead of down, and with that laughably simple change I was ready to follow these two lovers through the rest of the opera. There is so much in life that is difficult to understand, and sometimes it feels like the things that are important are just out of reach. I am always grateful and humbled when art reminds me of the importance of finding beauty in the simple acts of everyday life.