Before puberty, before a scalding flood of hormones seared my synapses and boiled my cerebellum, I was a smart kid. My parents blame the eventual change on a month spent in the mountains of Wyoming with ex-hippie instructors and the children of the wealthy, learning about low-impact camping and the necessity of chilling out and kicking back. But I blame the hormones.
Back then, I was smart enough for my smartness to be a liability, smart enough to receive insults from my fellow third-graders along the lines of, "I bet you read the dictionary and listen to classical music." The horror -- what kind of freak would ever do such things of his own free will?
My accuser was mistaken, however. I didn't read the dictionary, and I didn't listen to classical music -- or not much, anyway. The one exception was Virgil Fox's collection of Bach's greatest organ works, which I fell asleep to for at least a couple of years. (It was, to my unending shame, replaced by Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down. I was young.) And my parents played Pachelbel's Canon. Other than that, my musical diet consisted of their Broadway musical soundtracks, their Ann Murray, Barbra Streisand, and Trini Lopez. Some time after that, I heard Billy Joel's Glass Houses at a friend's, and by sixth grade, I was arguing that Joel was better than the Beatles (hello again, unending shame).
When CDs came out, I bought my brother a copy of Sgt. Pepper's -- I was over my devotion to Joel. And I bought myself a copy of the Bach organ works. But it was Bach's cello suites that got me listening. I first heard them during my sophomore year at college, oozing through the stud-and-paneling walls of my dorm. My next-door neighbor was a gaunt, mysterious freshman with a long ponytail, a Mephistophelean goatee, and little round Lenin glasses. The only decoration in his half of his room was a print of Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights. He was gracious enough when I asked what he was listening to -- the cello suites, recorded by Pierre Fournier.
It was the first classical music that had ever gone to my gut. It was complicated and elegant, but also brooding and wild -- notes on top of notes, sometimes so many that you wondered if the cellist was still in control of his bow. But then the music would resolve, and Fournier would caress a single note so that it had a discernible beginning, middle, and end -- the gentle attack, the swelling middle (I imagined the cellist leaning into his stroke ever so slightly), then the feather-light release. It was the first time I had ever thought music sensuous.
I told people about my wondrous discovery. A college tutor remarked that he owned the finest recording ever made of the cello suites, made by one Anner Bylsma. It was not available for sale in the United States. I was miffed at his untouchable superiority, but also curious. When a Bylsma recording showed up at Cymbeline on a later visit, I jumped at it.
The playing was incredible; I had to admit I preferred it to my Fournier. But the disc was flawed; every 15 seconds or so, I heard a distracting hiss. Maddening, like a skip on an LP. I put on the second disc -- the same thing. I resolved to ignore it. I failed. Finally, as I suffered, it dawned on me -- the hiss was Bylsma himself, taking in huge snootfuls of air as he tore through the music. I tried to accept it as a quirk of his brilliance. I failed again. I returned the record. I tried Rostropovich -- expressive, but too imprecise for my taste. Yo-Yo Ma -- too precise, and too thin of tone to boot. Pablo Casals, who brought the suites out of obscurity, just didn't move me the way Fournier did. But the listening tour bore this fruit -- I got my first concrete lesson in the way a performer interprets a composition and makes it his (or her) own.
My third-grade accuser is still more wrong than right. I still don't read the dictionary, and I listen to more pop and rock than classical. The horror-below-the-surface, surreal goofiness of They Might Be Giants' Lincoln has probably wormed further into my soul than Bach's cello suites ever will. Mine is not a classical sensibility. But if I had to go to that desert island with just one recording, I would want the Fournier, if only for the range and complexity of impressions it yields. A deeper vein to mine while I await my rescuers.