Last night I went to see The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma perform at the Mondavi Center here in Davis. As I’ve been reflecting on this trying to figure out how to write some sort of review, I’ve realized that nothing I can say will make any sense whatsoever. I do want to say, however, that this performance did not meet my expectations. Not because it wasn’t fantastic — really, it was amazing — but because I feel now as if I’ve spent my whole life wanting, needing, and expecting all the wrong things from music. I’ve heard things that have not met my expectations. I’ve also heard things that have met and even exceeded my expectations. But what I had never heard before last night was something so wonderful that it actually changed my expectations. I fear that what I have to say about the performance will be confusing and inadequate at best, but since Jon requested it, here it is. Please remember, though, that the more words I use, the farther from it I will get.
The Rock That Isn’t There
An excerpt from the program:
The title of the percussion trio that follows, Rionji, represents a fusion of two far-flung points on the globe that inspired composer and percussionist Joseph Gramley: the city of Rio de Janeiro and the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan. The rock garden at Ryoanji, which also inspired a composition by John Cage in the 1980s, famously displays a series of 15 stones. But viewers can never see more than 14 at a time — a Zen reminder of our imperfect enlightenment.
Much of what made this performance, these people up on stage, so incredible to listen to was what wasn’t there. I’m not just talking about the spaces between the notes. I am, but I’m also not. I’m also talking about the spaciousness that was there during the notes. So much of music, at least in our culture, focuses on what is there. We then focus on what’s not, such as the spaces between notes. No one ever talks about space being there when the sounds are happening. There was a wonderful spaciousness to the sound that made me think of an excerpt from the Genjo Koan:
A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies there is no end to the air.
Making The Audience (And Each Other) Uncomfortable
The musicians up on stage seemed completely bonkers for the most part, particularly gaita player Cristina Pato. At many points during the evening she would start yelling, running around the stage, playing instruments she wasn’t supposed to (at least that was my impression from the looks the rest of the ensemble was giving her) and would get in the other musician’s faces and force them to get up and dance with her while they were playing. They were visibly uncomfortable with what she was doing. It sounded great, but I certainly got the impression from their facial expressions that they were thinking Here she goes again… hope she doesn’t drag ME into it this time! I really loved her spontaneity and her unpredictability. I didn’t necessarily know where the music was going and I most definitely had no idea what this woman would do next. I’m not sure that she entirely knew what she’d do next. There were parts of the performance that I was literally on the edge of my seat.
In the second half of the show we got to hear an improvisation by Kayhan Kalhor who was playing the Kamancheh, which Yo-Yo Ma described as the cello’s great grandfather. What an absolutely gorgeous instrument — had I heard one played live before I started playing cello I would be playing it instead! Again, I’m at a point where I feel words are useless. What he played was gorgeous, but that’s so beyond the point of all this. It was intimate, as if he should have been playing for an audience of one, meditative, so many things it just seems absurd to think I can convey any of it. I feel like all I’m doing is describing the finger pointing at the moon!
His improvisation was long. As my husband said, it was about twice as long as it should have been. Which was the greatest thing about it! It was so long that it made the audience uncomfortable. Even though about halfway through you’d pretty much heard all of what he was going to do, he just kept on going. Even though he started repeating the same elements, it somehow became harder to listen to. It became for me as an audience member an interactive meditation, a look into my own mind and the chaos that exists within. Then it became something like Zazen: there’s this point about half an hour in where suddenly something changes, a point at which the mind’s resistance ceases, where it surrenders to the moment. Then during the next period of meditation it feels like it’s over as soon as it has begun. Then at the end of the day the sadness that it’s over, the feeling that you could have just sat there meditating forever. I could have listened to him play forever.
My husband and I had great seats — second row and in the center. (So, perhaps, this wasn’t perceptible to the whole audience, but I expect it was.) Truly there are no bad seats at the Mondavi Center, but I’m not sure people far away could sense this quite as much. The ensemble, especially when they were all playing together (they broke out into smaller groups for much of the evening,) had a physical energy that you could almost see. I could watch it shift from one part of the group to another, this invisible something that gave the music a quality of aliveness that made me feel as if I was participating rather than spectating. I just had to see where it was going to go next, how it was going to feel next.
Some of the talk surrounding the demise of the Western Symphony Orchestra and what works instead has been on what’s happening visually with the performance. As for this one, there was a screen in the background which was lit to a very pale, but warm, color. Nothing moving, just a sort of mood color. The spotlights on stage were changed to be on whatever performers were up there at the time, but it wasn’t anything complicated or distracting. The performers were wearing all sorts of clothes — Cristina Pato had on a crazy dress with a screaming head painted on the front of it, some were wearing suits, another a bright dress. It wasn’t cohesive, it wasn’t specifically designed to be visually interesting. The outfits just reflected the people wearing them, nothing more, nothing less.
Really, it was all very simple. Well thought out, but not overdone enough to distract you. I talk about this because I found in this performance that what mattered visually was the energy that was happening on stage. It was dynamic. They got up, moved around, yelled, etc. Not every instrument was being performed at all times during each piece. The energy was able to move freely around the stage and that was what I was glued to. Fancy visuals are only necessary when the performers can’t get your attention otherwise.
And here I am talking about the person describing the hand that’s pointing to the moon. Farther and farther I get from the essence of what I am wishing to describe.
The Humanity of the Performance and a Peculiar Instrument
I was thinking during the intermission about how it was the greatness of these people’s humanity, their authentic selves, that made their music so special. That they are all spectacular instrumentalists is a given. That the music being performed is a delight to hear is a given. Those things are a necessity, but they hardly matter. What struck me about the people up on stage was that whatever sounds they made seemed to be infused with and convey the entirety of the human condition. They weren’t just connecting to themselves, each other, and the audience. Perhaps this quality is best described by a quote from the Tao De Ching:
Who distinguishes himself from the world may be given the world,
But who regards himself as the world may accept the world.
I thought how these people could literally play anything and it would be beautiful. I was realizing how necessary, but unimportant technique, high quality instruments, good compositions, etc. are to the creation of deeply affective music are. (Yes, I mean affective, not effective.) After the intermission this point was driven home when Joseph Gramley used nothing but his own body as his instrument. Instead of it being gimmicky it was just plain awesome. The audience went wild, bursting into applause during the middle of the song (twice, I think!) because it was just such a treat to be a part of. Here was this guy on stage in front of hundreds of people doing nothing but smacking himself all over his body and it was more musical than any sound to have ever come out of my cello.
Like I have said, this performance has changed my expectations of what music can and should be. What does this mean for me as a cellist? Can I as a beginner incorporate any of this into my playing? Certainly I wasn’t satisfied before, but now. Well, I’ll leave you with another quote from the Tao De Ching:
Without taking a step outdoors
You know the whole world;
Without taking a peep out the window
You know the colour of the sky.
The more you experience,
The less you know.
The sage wanders without knowing,
Sees without looking,
Accomplishes without acting.