Bach: Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major
April of 2013 was the second closest I’ve come to a nervous breakdown. I shuffled over pink bricks under crape myrtle trees while humid tidewater air clung to me like batting from my mother’s sewing table. She sewed in a corner of her office and there were always cylindrical bags stuffed full of cobweb bunches like cotton ball sausages stacked in the closet floor. We picked out the fabric for my beach-themed quilts – my sister’s dogs, my wife’s owls – and Mom stitched together squares cut from great rolls of cloth to make each. When the time came to stuff a quilt or blanket, I grabbed scraps of the airy batting that she’d trimmed free, stretched it until it pulled apart and floated in the air.
Before Columbus Day brought cool, the swampy inland peanut fields and highways were an altogether oppressive sort of hot. Close enough to the ocean to bake in the sun, but not so close that a salty breeze disturbed the stifling humidity. April to mid-September felt solid, like walking through melted caramel. Being my mother’s son, I thought of batting. The heat sat on my shoulders and pulled apart in my fingers. Air has a way of feeling heavy anyway.
I get a feeling when worrying tips over into a boiling cauldron of nerves. The tangle of oven lights, callous words, account balances, slights perceived, persistent melancholy, eyebrows raised, deadlines near, and schedules to accommodate transforms from a haze into something solid that settles in the space where I imagine my ribcage meets under my sternum. Something tense like a rubber-band ball lodges and pushes, swelling against the beating ventricles but never growing too large. Like a Shepard tone, octaves constantly rising and trading places so as never to ease the mounting tension, the space beneath my chest expands to bursting but won’t.
I was a wreck through most of college: obsessive and irritable, insecure and severe. Classical guitar was compulsory and I never quite got over it. I marked time with nylon strings, buffed the edges of my fingernails to a shine and played my Segovia scales, only until I felt okay bagging it for electric guitar. I practiced sightreading and hopping intervals and Charlie Parker until the music building closed for the night. At the time, counterpoint and Sor studies felt like a pleasant waste of time; something to complete before I moved on to what I wanted to be doing. Giuliani before Bird; spinach before ice cream. But I think of the times that fluorescent lights scratched at my retina or air squeezed my head at the temples or oxygen got too thin and I had to leave. I always had an electric guitar in my hand.
There’s a certain heaviness to the notion that one should be doing something. Or maybe there’s a certain lightness to the notion that one does something else for no particular reason. It seems strange that the dictionary considers two separate meanings for the word “weight.”
“A body’s relative mass or the quantity of matter contained by it, giving rise to a downward force; the heaviness of a person or thing.”
… or …
“The ability of someone or something to influence decisions or actions.”
The thesaurus offers the following synonyms for the first usage: heaviness, mass, load, burden, pressure. It offers the following for the second: influence, force, leverage, sway, pull, importance, significance, consequence. I don’t think those definitions are separate at all. Or they’re separate only in the way that both fires and people can rage. Perhaps they mean something slightly different in practice, but the word was applied to the former because of the way it evokes the latter. If you’d asked, I’d have said that I enjoyed playing jazz guitar more, but it also weighed more heavily. It sent me into the corner of the rehearsal room to sit cross-legged with my eyes closed. I often didn’t want to be playing classical guitar, but that also made it easier – with one exception.
During my senior year, I began learning a transcription of J.S. Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major. I worked through the entire thing so that I could perform it on my recital in April of that year: six movements, twenty minutes, no sheet music, no breaks. But in February I got a twinge in my wrists and tingle in the pinky and ring finger of each hand. My guitar teacher, John, recognized tendonitis and I went to a doctor who prescribed three daily doses of four ibuprofen – and rest. The former was easy enough (for a short time) but the latter impossible two months before my recital.
I stopped playing electric guitar and started dunking my wrists in ice-water for ninety seconds every twenty minutes, for two hours each night. John suggested I play through my music one hand at a time, right without left and left without right. He suggested I look at my music without a guitar and envision the way my fingers would move. I spent hours in my room, listening to the suite with my eyes closed, imagining my fingers darting across the fretboard. When the final movement – the Gigue – came to its dramatic conclusion, I stood up and went to the kitchen where the ice water waited in a stock pot on the counter.
I probably only finished the suite because my wrists developed what a second doctor diagnosed as full-on carpal tunnel: inflammation of the passage through which the nerves pass from arm to hand, such that nerves get pinched and fingers burn or go numb. Anyone who’s ever played a lengthy selection of Bach will agree that the challenges of capacity – actually getting the notes out – are nothing compared to the challenges of memory. Difficult passages pale next to the task of memorizing hundreds of notes; melodies that fold into one another, overlap, conclude as others begin, tangle in fugues and canons, and alternate in prominence. Muscle memory is a crutch, the first thing to go with the adrenaline of performance, quiver of nerves, and glare of lights. Sitting with my guitar in its case and the score stained by the light of my desk lamp, John Williams or Pablo Cassals or Andres Segovia or Pierre Fournier dancing elegantly about the room, I learned the music better than I ever could have by playing it.
I stumbled over the finish line. I played the suite and the rest of the recital but it was one of the most difficult things I’d ever done and my gray matter fried, head cracked like an egg over a buttered skillet. The last few months of college were the hardest of the whole endeavor, but college only left me with only a few things I valued and Bach’s Cello Suites were among them.
My friend Will and I went to Norfolk shortly before my recital and saw Andrew York perform in a small room. York wrote another piece called “Letting Go” that I played on my recital, but he also recorded my favorite interpretation of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 for guitar. He played the suite there, tuning his guitar down into the right range and reading straight from the tenor clef cello score. Most guitarists transpose the music up so that it sits better in the instrument’s range but at pitch, the whole thing opens. Instead of ringing between the ears, it swells into the gut like a great full breath of cool air. I’ve never particularly cared for period performance – the practice of playing music strictly as it would’ve been played when the composer wrote it. But frequency is a physical thing and the pitches have weight like a rock, summer air blowing off the beach, or the knot pushing against my ribs. The pieces mean something different down where they’re supposed to be.
The preludes to Bach’s various suites and partitas are objectively the cooler pieces of music, free of the rigidly metric framework of the dances – allemande, courante, sarabande, bouree, and gigue – that follow. It’s hard to beat the mesmerizing pedal points that usher in his Violin Partita No. 3 in E major or the sonorous yawn of the prelude to his first Cello Suite. Now would be the time for me to say that I was always more difficult to seduce, resistant to such easy pleasures, but that was never the case. I like to think my tastes more refined and obscure, but I fell for the conventionally beautiful tumble of counterpoint. The cascading prelude to my own suite occupied more time than any three of the subsequent movements combined. I sat in the front row of the Chrysler Museum theater in Norfolk as Ana Vidovic set in motion that Partita in E like flicking a domino, precise and clear and unceasing until it was spent. I sat slack-jawed.
But as I dug deeper, I learned to love a different corner of the vast music. The Sarabande was the only slow movement, the most repetitive, the easiest to play, and the least flashy. Its open chords rang under the dusty lights next to rusting music stands and out-of-tune Kawai upright pianos, falling over rooms like a blanket. Frequency is a physical thing and it rang in the space where I imagine my ribcage meets under my sternum, briefly pushing out the tangle of nerves. For a moment after the final bar line, there was peace, an emptiness as the music reverberated against the dead linoleum.
The Sarabande was tangible. The chords pulled and filled within the confines of rules. It splashed against the sides of its container. The Prelude was intoxicating because it had no container. That freedom can make one feel boundless, but it usually just makes me resent boundaries the next time I encounter them. There is no prelude, no formless expression. There are always rules, meter, repetition, people dancing as you play. The prelude was beautiful but I always knew it was unrealistic. It was a sunset through an instagram filter – the Sarabande was The Real McCoy.
Will and I left the concert hall and met Andy York with our teacher in the lobby. I gave him my copy of “Letting Go” to sign.
I almost went to graduate school but didn’t. My diploma is somewhere at my parents’ house. It might be framed – I’m not sure. Either way, I don’t think it’s hanging. But I had my recital program, along with the signed sheet music, framed and hung on my wall before I even got a grade.