Music that transforms

I’m sure that my first introduction to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was at church. Although we attended a relatively small church that didn’t have an array of fancy musical instruments and couldn’t afford full-time musicians, we did have a small electronic organ and a well-trained organist who played for our worship. Several Bach pieces are part of the standard repertory for church organists and I’m sure that I heard Bach preludes and other pieces before I was aware of the composer or his impact on the world of music.

Bach died over 200 years before I was born, but his music continues to inspire people around the world. These days I serve a church with a modest pipe organ and a very competent organist and I am treated to Bach on a regular basis. Some of the preludes and toccatas by Bach have become so ingrained into my being that I find myself humming Bach melodies when I haven’t been thinking of him, or of music at all. The tunes are just a part of my memory.

One of my tools for calming myself and focusing my attention is simply listening to a recording of the Bach Cello Suites. The album that I have on my phone is one of Yo Yo Ma’s recordings of the complete set of six suites. Mr. Ma has now released three separate recordings of the suites. I haven’t yet gotten time to sit down and listen to his latest, released last month, but one reviewer commented that if you listen closely, you can sometimes hear him breathing as he plays. It has been said that the cello is the instrument that is closest to the human voice and that even though the bow can be drawn back and forth across the strings to produce a continuous sound, the most accomplished cellists learn to allow for pauses that respond to the natural breathing cycle of humans. The pauses make the music more approachable and allow for a deeper connection between the listener and the player. I don’t know all of the details why this phenomenon exists, but I do know that music has a powerful ability to influence my emotions.

I’ve never met Yo Yo Ma and I’ve never heard him play in person. Still, I feel a deep connection that has been conveyed through listening to his performances for recording.

Mr. Ma believes that music has the power to transform not only individuals, but the world. At the age of 62, he has just started a new project. Over the next two years, he will visit 36 cities on six continents and perform the complete cycle of 6 Bach cello suites in each city. He points out that each of the six suites has six sections. There is a lot of symbolism in this adventure. The entire cycle of suites takes a bit over 2 1/2 hours in the version that is on my recording. It isn’t something that can be rushed.

It takes something very special to memorize such a volume of music in the first place. Long past the point of memorization, Mr. Ma has incorporated these suites into his being. I have no doubt that the repetition of playing the same music multiple times has progressed to an entirely new level. Each performance is a unique event and I know that when he finishes the project the 36th performance will be as fresh as the first.

this project, however, is not just a series of performances. Each performance of the suites will be paired with what he is calling a “day of action.” He sees his work as a mission of bringing Bach into the community, not just its recital hall. He believes that this music, with its objectivity and empathy, its breathless energy and delicate grace, is capable of changing the world.

I agree with him. His plan, which seems to me to be a mission - perhaps a vocation, is one of the things that gives me deep hope for the future.

This world is deeply in need of change.

My fantasy is that the entire U.S. Senate along with the House of Representatives along with the President and members of the administration and the entire Supreme Court would gather for a joint session and simply listen for 2 1/2 hours to Mr. Ma playing the complete cycle of concertos without a pause. I know they would not be capable of talking to each other the way they do after such an experience. They might even be inspired to listen to one another and recognize that they are all human beings.

The fantasy aside, this beautiful collection of suites was almost lost to the world. For a long time after the death of Bach they were seen as simple etudes, exercises for learning. They were not seen as something that would be performed in public, but rather tunes for instruction and learning how to play the instrument. They might have remained a kind of musical curiosity had it not been for a young boy wandering into a music shop in Barcelona. The story as I have heard it is that when he was 13, Pablo Casals happened on a used copy of the score and bought it. Many decades later, when he was famous for other pieces and other performances, he recorded the set of suites. Hearing this recording was a pivotal moment in the education of Yo Yo Ma. The rest, as they say, is history.

I am a fan of many different genres of music. There are days when I am touched and inspired by the organ with all of the stops pulled out and the under of the huge bass pipes vibrating the building. There are times when a full symphony orchestra has touched me deeply. I love jazz and the blues and seek out live performances when I am able. I have some recordings of solo piano that I dearly love.

But there is something about one man with one cello that speaks to me on the deepest level.

Mr. Ma characterizes his first two recordings of the suites this way: the first “is youthful ‘I know everything.’ The second is middle-aged confusion.” It is that second recording that so moves me. Perhaps I have come to the point in my life where I need to make time to sit down and listen to the third recording. Better yet, perhaps I can get to one of those 36 cities and listen live. Even if I don’t I give thanks to God for the simple fact that I have been alive at the same time as Mr. Ma.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!