By Ari Friedman
I recently listened to David Foster Wallace’s This is Water speech that he gave at Kenyon College’s 2005 commencement. This speech contains so many truths, but the one that resonated most for me is his concept of worship. “Everybody worships,” he says. “There is no such thing as atheism. The only choice we get is what to worship… If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid.” He asserts that maybe, just maybe, we might choose to worship some “spiritual type thing” — something bigger than we are — because worshipping anything else will ruin us.
For a long time, I have worshipped at the temple of my own mind. Maybe you can relate: it’s the belief that thinking hard enough or obsessively enough, manipulating a situation to the best of your ability, will result in a desired outcome. If there is anything I am certain of, it is that this method does not work. Manipulating and planning have helped me to an extent, but there is also another component and this, I think, is mystery,or what Wallace means by “a spiritual type thing.” I have come to believe that there is an exquisitely delicate balance between striving and allowing for mystery, though this balance consistently proves to be elusive.
My life as a musician has run the gamut. I started at age five as a pianist and composer, diligently capturing my five to twenty-five second “pieces” on a tape recorder which I labeled “Ariel’s Play Along.” Composition exited the picture at age seven when I started cello and began the required structure of lessons and practicing from sheet music. I still remember what it felt like to hold my eighth size rental cello for the first time. I remember unpacking it from the soft black case, days before my first lesson, tightening the bow and sawing at the strings. I knew how bad it sounded (“like a dying cow,” according to my older sister and both my parents) but in my head I was hearing tone of golden strands, an aural illusion not unlike one of Don Quixote’s fantasies. “I can’t wait to be good at this,” I thought. Note the determination in that thought: I can’t wait, not I hope I will be… I remember holding the bow in my fist and plucking the strings, just as I had seen orchestral players do during pizzicato sections, and wondering if I was doing it right.
Fast forward to my first ever fiddle camp, age eighteen, summer before college, where all ages and levels of people gathered lakeside and fireside to play music by ear. Learning by ear was something I hadn’t done since my early Suzuki years and by the end of those five days in the woods, that old familiar feeling was back, the one I’d experienced upon holding my first cello. By now, I had lived my younger self’s desire to be “good at cello” although I would never have noted this significance at the time, the mind temple being a powerful force. It almost goes without saying how culturally fixated we are on striving and outcome, how little we are able to acknowledge our own success and achievement without realizing how far we have yet to go.
So now I was faced with an additional goal: to be a great “fiddling” cellist. Which of course couldn’t have been worse timing considering I was heading to college a few weeks later to study classical cello performance. In college I quickly learned that the most important thing in life was how many hours I spent alone in a tiny room in order to please my teacher, impress my fellow studio cellists, and improve my abilities. Here, it was perhaps not my own mind I worshipped but the expectations of others. If my mind was a temple, the practice room became an altar.
By the time college was over, I was burnt out and sure that I did not want to take orchestra auditions, wanting instead to pursue a career in “folk music.” At that point, fiddle tunes were the only way in which I knew how to be creative. I knew that they didn’t involve getting every note right or shutting myself alone in a room for several hours a day. I was in love with their haphazard, dusty sounds. This music acted as a gateway out of the rigidity of my classical background and into new territory, a threshold that vastly expanded during my time at New England Conservatory’s Contemporary Improvisation program.
It was during my graduate studies there that I discovered a love of early jazz, songwriting, and a new way to listen. Very quickly, I understood that there were a million other genres and skills that I wished would come as naturally to me as speaking English. In addition to my desire to compose again, relearn to play piano (my first instrument) and learn to sing, I wanted to be able to improvise on cello and piano. In different styles. Who has this kind of time. More importantly, whose mind has this sort of capacity? It was right around this period that my quixotic fantasies of being the best — shall we call them delusions? — began to decompose.
It’s taken me a while to understand the beauty in the words “Contemporary Improvisation.” There are so many ways to improvise: within the context of a jazz standard, an “out” jazz composition, improvising around the melody of a tune or song, free improvisation, and so many more. Though free improvisation is not something I have been intricately involved with, I know its central concept to be rather metaphorical: the idea that we can practice improvising. We can practice reacting to what happens, and then reacting to what happens next, one unfolding moment after another. How wonderful it is to know we can cultivate this, that, though our big picture intentions will always be an umbrella under which we work, we can forge a relationship with immediacy.
So, back to David Foster Wallace. He articulates such a painful truth about humanity, that our “natural default setting,” as he calls it, is to worship money, intellect, talent, or appearance. But with these as our primary tenets, we come up short. We feel that we are never enough, that we can never have or do enough.
The musical, professional, and personal reality in which I live has often been a quest for labels and results, my over-analytical mind wondering if I am doing it right, is it enough, what’s next? But when I pick my head up and peer out over the constant hum of these questions, I find a great palatial truth: that music runs much deeper than personal triumph. That it is bigger than me and bigger than you. As one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott says, “Music is as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.” It turns out my reality is in fact a much larger canvas than I have allowed it to be. One corner is made up of string quartet repertoire, another of fiddle camps and tunes, a red splash on one side is composition, the thick blue stripe: teaching. All the overlap and blended colors, well… that’s where definition becomes impossible. I am getting better at opening the can of white paint, painting over the areas that are no longer working, shifting the color scheme, readjusting the lighting and, my most recent and mind-blowing discovery of all, that I have the ability to step back. To see that it is simply one giant work in progress.
Ari Friedman is a multi-genre trailblazing cellist, composer and educator from Boston. To read more from Ari Friedman, visit her blog, Unruly Heart.