file0716-1460623691-98.jpg

Finding Improvisation

By · Photography Courtesy of Elena Cheah · Date 04/14/2016

1.

After graduating from Juilliard in 1997, I moved to Berlin on a lark, escaping from the untenable pressure of finding work in a city that needed no more musicians. In 2001, two years into my studies with the great Boris Pergamenschikow, I found myself in my first orchestral job as principal cellist of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. I knew little about opera and less about life in a professional orchestra. I was not prepared for the mostly joyless, shoulder-to-the-grindstone attitude of my more experienced colleagues and didn’t yet know how to create and protect my own sphere of music-making and spontaneity.

Three years later, I succumbed to tinnitus. People call it a ringing in the ears. Ringing connotes bells, telephones, pure clear voices, sounds that die down into blessed silence. This was a panicked siren blaring over an ocean. It began the morning after “Die Frau ohne Schatten” and did not dissipate. I had polished the concerto-like cello solo in that opera to a state of high-gloss perfection. I knew I could literally play that solo in my sleep and yet each time, in the moments before the solo was about to begin, I was not the least bit reassured that I could play even the first few notes of it well. I knew exactly how I wanted it to sound and yet I could not let the music flow from that feeling; the need to sculpt every note crippled my ability to sing, to belt it out like the costumed people on stage above me. I got compliments for my solo, but they always felt undeserved because I hadn’t been able to connect to my own musical conviction. My seen audience in the orchestra pit consisted of the conductor, the wall behind him, and about 60 hardened professionals counting bars of rest. I had ascended the career ladder only to land below ground.

My physical therapist explained to me how the tongue was connected to the muscles around the inner ear, how tension there could cause noise in the ears. I was clenching my jaw both physically and metaphorically, not letting myself express what I wanted to. I went on sick leave for six weeks, time to reflect on what I was trying to choke back with all that tension. When I came back, I handed in my resignation, much to everyone’s astonishment: a burnout at 27. I needed a big break from the grown-up business of being a polished professional. I wanted to learn how to play like a child again, this time in music.

Family legend has it that when I, the youngest of three, would get cranky and start to cry, my brother Dorian, four and a half years older, would get out his little violin and start playing to me and I would stop crying and listen. Later, when I had gotten a cello for Christmas just after my fourth birthday, we would play duets together, then trios with a local kid who played the piano. I played string trios with both of my older brothers, who made a game of standing up and sitting down while playing to tease me because I couldn’t stand up while playing the cello.

My brothers were often left to babysit me when we were younger. That was when they got out their hidden LPs: Queen, the Beatles, Michael Jackson, David Bowie. Funnily enough, I don’t remember us watching TV at all. The real forbidden fruit was this music of our own choosing. When our parents were at home there was only ever classical music on the radio or the record or cassette player. Once in a while my Dad would listen to Peter, Paul and Mary in the car. That felt like a wild deviation from our usual soundtrack. I fell asleep listening to Paul Tortelier’s recordings of the Bach suites almost every night. We went to concerts of the Pittsburgh Symphony regularly.

We grew up with far more discipline than most American kids. Our father, a Singaporean immigrant, and our mother, a first-generation American born to European Jewish immigrants, had learned that they had to be better and faster than everyone else in order to survive in our country, and they taught us to do the same. We had music lessons with the best players from the Pittsburgh Symphony. My brothers trained hard as competitive runners and won races. We entered, and won, local music competitions. We were better and faster and we proved it by being in the spotlight.

We did also have time to play. I remember long summer evenings on our sloping driveway. It was the ideal surface for drawing spaceships with fat pieces of chalk when there were no cars parked on it. The image in my memory is of a vast space, a pavement much broader than our driveway could have possibly been. It would become our launching pad for whole afternoons; when afternoons melted into evenings, stars would appear above our spaceship. We would tumble weightlessly from one chamber to the next. Dorian had explained to me how there was no gravity in space and I would feel exactly what it was to be a piece of desert brush somersaulting in slow motion from point to point.

My brother had an active and contagious imagination. For years, as a child, I believed that there was a secret trap door on the surface of the tennis courts in the park next door, and that it led to a complex underworld my brother visited frequently. He told me elaborate stories about his encounters in that subterranean labyrinth and, perhaps because I didn’t want to find out that it wasn’t true, I never went looking for that trap door.

Eventually, adolescence approached and drew my brother into its own complex underworld. It contained, among other things, electric guitars, amps, distortion pedals, the whole bad boy getup. He was suspended from high school for a week for performing Purple Haze with his band at a school party, the principal disapproving of its drug-inspired lyrics. After school his chosen music blared from behind his closed door: Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana. I kept practicing my scales and etudes long after he was getting by with a minimum of effort while still attending Juilliard Pre-College. Now, as a teacher myself, I can imagine why his teachers didn’t kick him out even though he never practiced. He was one of those wild talents, untamable but intuitively right in all that cannot be taught.

After leaving the job I’d worked so hard to get, I decided to turn to the person who had taught me to transcend gravity. The antidote to my excessive drive for control and perfection would be rock music, plugged in and driven by the beat. I wanted to learn to play improv solos like my brother could, free and wild.

Dorian had moved to Los Angeles before I left for Berlin and was working as a pop music producer and studio musician. In 2004 I visited him for the first time with the intention of joining his rock band for a few weeks, hoping to leave the notion of a career far behind me. We played with drums and bass, my brother on electric violin and me on a regular cello with a pickup.

He eroded my anxiety over improvising through sheer repetition. He made a loop on his electric violin and we played on top of it for what felt like hours. He made it beautifully simple. I don’t remember the chord progression, but it was maybe something like the blues. I asked for rules, guidelines. He said: “Don’t study the rules first, just do it. If you study rules you’ll just get tangled up in them before you can start making any music.” I believed him and played. He played two bars, I played two bars. He played two bars, I played two bars. It was mind-numbingly simple. “Don’t try to make it good,” he said. Sometimes I would try to make it good. I would imagine what a good jazz player, a good improviser would do and try to do that. It never worked. I often lost my sense of rhythm, finished on the wrong note. “Just listen first,” he said. “It’s better to play less than more. Wait until something comes.” But what if nothing ever comes to me, I kept thinking, especially when we’re on stage? That’s a whole different kind of terror: to be on stage at the mercy of whatever lost, neglected part of my subconscious churns out musical ideas. To have to accept that nothing at all might come, or utter nonsense, or worse.

I went to LA three times that year, using up my savings and breaking down my inhibitions little by little. There was no one there to judge me and nothing in particular to achieve. Then my money ran out and I had to get another job. I was drawn back into the classical world and it took me 10 years to come back to LA to jam.

Photography © David Elge

2.

This past March, I went to LA for the third time in a year. The trips were part of a conscious decision to regress into a third adolescence, made possible by the semester breaks of my new job as cello professor at the Music University of Freiburg.

One day we were playing around, inventing some new tunes. My brother can do this endlessly. He played a rhythmic pattern and looped it. “I don’t even know what meter that is,” he said, laughing, after taking his foot away from the pedal. “It’s three plus five,” I said. “Very Balkan. Or Hungarian.” Then he started playing some bluesy guitar-like riffs on top of it. I attempted to answer him on my new electric cello once in a while. My responses were measured and classical-sounding to his unbridled Hendrix licks. I took a back seat and listened again. He had been recording this session on his iPhone and started playing it back. Again, I admired his creativity and flinched at my own squareness. “Listen: I can’t even play in time,” I said. “I need to work on my rhythm. As soon as it gets faster, I panic and freeze up.” Trying to keep up with my brother’s cascades of loose triplets and blues scales, I imitated him and tripped on my own fingers. I asked him to help me with my rhythm.

“Okay, start with this,” he said. He put the loop back on and said, “now just play one note and make it groove.” He demonstrated. I obeyed. “Yeah, you know,” he said, “classical musicians are always trying to make everything pretty, but sometimes you don’t want that. Sometimes you need grit.” He pressed his bow into the string, making a kind of Louis Armstrong croak on each note. I tried. Years of practicing smooth bow changes got in my way.

“Try it like this,” he said, stopping the bow between each note: the opposite of flowing bow changes. I tried. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s it,” he said. “Now try two notes.” I played two notes and made them groove. Then a broken triad in different combinations. He started analyzing his own playing. “I guess I play a lot of triplets. But then they just kind of devolve into runs—I don’t even know what note values they are and I don’t care. And with a pattern like this, I don’t know where the downbeat is and I don’t care.” He started playing a four-note pattern over the bass line, D-G, A-F in different rhythms, falling on different beats each time. “DGAF: don’t give a fuck. That’s what we should call this tune. That’s how you learn rhythm. If you can learn to not give a fuck in your improvising, you’ll already be way better.”

When I responded to his solo fragments, there was an obvious difference in quality between a planned response and one that I had heard from within. Planned responses sounded like muzak in comparison to spontaneous ones. It took time for me to feel safe, to be comfortable letting nothing happen. Whenever I was conscious of too much time going by without any of my own contributions, I blurted out something that didn’t fit because I hadn’t respected my own silence and how it wanted to be followed.

In the car on the way to the supermarket to get dinner for the kids, my brother put on “Vein Melter” from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. “Oh yeah, I know this album inside and out,” I said. “Just listen to this solo,” he said. “Listen to this sax player, how he just lays it down over the groove. It’s like he’s not even making it happen, like he just lets it float over that beat. He’s not doing anything at all.”


HERBIE HANCOCK – HEAD HUNTERS – Vein Melter von bozorale

Herbie Hancock, “Vein Melter,” from Headhunters

“And that’s exactly what I’m looking for,” I said. “I feel I’ve finally learned how to do that in classical music. Even though it’s all written out, there’s a way of freeing yourself to the extent that you just float over the harmony—the groove—as if every new note were happening for the first time and just pouring out. I’m convinced there must be a common denominator, that you don’t have to stop being a good classical musician to be able to groove and vice versa.”

On the way back, he scrolled through his playlist and put on Chopin’s Nocturne No. 15 in F Minor, played by Claudio Arrau. “This is the same feeling for me,” he said. “At the end of this Nocturne, there’s a part that’s like a leaf floating down in the breeze. It’s the same feeling I get from that sax solo in ‘Vein Melter.’ ” We listened, stopping and going through Santa Monica traffic between Big Blue Buses and SUVs. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I know what you mean. The left hand is the groove and he just lets the right hand follow.” As if his right hand didn’t give a fuck what the left was doing.

Chopin, Nocturne No. 15 in F Minor; Claudio Arrau (Piano)

The better-and-faster way of our childhood had always landed me in the wrong situations. I had always sought positions other people respected, not places where I could be creative. One orchestra after another turned out to be a mismatch for my personality and what I wanted to say. My trips to LA, then as now, were a search for a new paradigm, for ways to move through music more effortlessly, to stop strangling myself.

My decisions probably seem strange to most other classical musicians. I spend the majority of my spring and summer breaks in Santa Monica, doodling away at tunes with my brother the way we used to doodle on the driveway. Back then our doodles became vessels for travel, launch pads into outer space, far above the heads of those grown-ups who structured our days and brought us to school and lessons and races.

We are adults now; my brother has his own children and here we are, part of that busy-making society that parks on top of spaceships to bring children to their scheduled activities. Dorian runs Yogis Anonymous, a yoga studio in Santa Monica; he is a business owner saddled with responsibility. Financial institutions and societal pressure threaten to make us into those sober grown-ups with no imagination. The driveway can easily be just a driveway now; it’s hard to remember those days of late sunsets and freedom from gravity.

In coming here, I was looking for the trap door in the tennis courts because I wanted to feel the way I did when I believed in it and the fascinating underworld below. Being in LA of all places—the city of entertainment, of bright and shiny surfaces—it is easy to see myself as a lost and deluded child investing lots of time and money in a chalk spaceship.

My friend Sarah Danays is a kindred spirit. She’s a gifted English sculptor who followed her husband to Venice, California, and works in a small atelier steps away from Abbott Kinney, the commercial hub of beautiful people. Her world is silence, alabaster, marble, hammers and chisels. Outside is a world of sunshine, the beach, groomed pets in custom-made bags, people sipping cold-pressed lattes for $10.95. On an earlier trip to LA, I marveled at her upstream resolve and she said to me, “but how do you want to spend your life, darling?” It stopped me in my tracks, that uncompromising question.

The 10th century Buddhist monk Atisha said that to attain enlightenment, one should live in disharmony with the world. That phrase pops into my mind every so often when it occurs to me how my choices must appear to others, when I am plagued by that infuriating disease of needing approval for my actions. To be in disharmony with society means, perhaps, to be in harmony with one’s own intuition. Listen, respond. Call, answer. I don’t want my responses to the world to be rote. And that means giving up on my drug, the drug of societal approval. I’ve been dependent for a long time. Achievement equals approval equals survival.

During our show on March 19 at Yogis Anonymous, I found the trap door and peeked below it.

The last time I came to Santa Monica, we started a benefit concert series at the yoga studio called Barefoot Concerts and decided to forgo the bass and drums, redubbing ourselves Elektrick World. Just the two of us and sometimes a few computer tracks. I was no longer the little sister tagging along in an already complete rock band, I was 50 percent responsible for carrying the show, playing solos and being the rhythm section.

DGAF, Dorian Cheah (Electric Violin), Elena Cheah (Electric Cello)

I had just started an improv solo in our new tune, “DGAF,” and it was going fine when I landed on a note between notes, the kind of wrongness that would make me cringe in a classical concert. Here was something I didn’t want but couldn’t take back. I kept going with the smeary slide and made it into a sequence. It was something like tripping on the sidewalk and turning it into dance steps, but it felt right. I convinced myself that I meant to do that and maybe our audience believed me.

Once, when I was on a last-minute trip to New York from Berlin some years ago, I had an experience that changed the way I understand cause and effect. My friend Clemency Burton-Hill, who now hosts the Breakfast Show on the BBC’s Radio 3, had just moved to New York at the time and I wanted to get in touch with her. Before my plane took off, I emailed her asking her to text me her new U.S. cellphone number. When I arrived at JFK, I had not yet heard from her. I got in a taxi and dozed until about the Upper East Side. Barreling down Lexington in the 40s, I remembered that Clemmie was living in this neighborhood and I made a note to myself in my fuzzy state that I should email her again from my hotel. The very same moment that thought arose, I glanced out the window and saw her crossing the street. I yelled to the driver to stop the car, opened the door and shouted her name across the intersection. She looked up from her phone, incredulous, and walked over. “I was just looking for your phone number,” she said.

In my post-flight sleepiness, I could not know whether I had seen her before or after registering that this was her neighborhood. All I knew was that I had had an intention, opened my eyes, and been able to see what was in front of me. Had I been in the editing, calculating state of mind that used to plague me in classical music performance, I might never have spotted her.

When I’m playing freely, it arises from the same phenomenon: I have an intention but no busy plan to carry it out. I ask and hope to receive, take what I am given and make it right, impossible as it may seem. I trust that creative underworld and roam it freely, relishing the knowledge that it is mine alone even as I draw from it to share with others. I play like a child and don’t care who’s watching. ¶