Jessica Gross | Longreads | June 2016 | 15 minutes (3,866 words)
In December, I stayed in New York City while its residents flew away and visitors flooded the streets. I treated the quiet time like a vacation, searching for little adventures. On a Tuesday shortly before Christmas, this little Jew put on her most respectable NYC-adventuress outfit—a green-and-gray-plaid skirt, black heeled ankle boots—and went to the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.
Several days prior, scouring the detailed schedule of the (insanely beautiful) Cathedral, I’d seen a mysterious listing for a Bach pop-up concert. I knew little about what I was headed to, and hadn’t seen this concert advertised anywhere. When I showed up, only a smattering of people filled the seats in the grand cavernous space.
It is hard to describe a completely transporting musical experience; all the most accurate words feel cheesy. But here it is: this experience was transcendent. The woman playing Bach on her violin created a trance in which we were all held captive. It felt ludicrous that there were not more people there to witness it. When the performance ended, I blinked and smacked my hands together, wanting more.
She announced she’d be playing again shortly, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street, so I dutifully followed. It was a different space—crowded with patrons, small, the sound loud and close. But I was entranced yet again. I beamed a gaping smile at the strangers around me, less cool adventuress than extremely uncool sycophant, but I couldn’t help it: this was pretty euphoric.
Afterward, I introduced myself to the musician. Her name was Michelle Ross, and it turned out this was the culmination of “Discovering Bach,” her 33-day project playing Bach’s entire solo violin cycle in public spaces throughout New York City. She kept a blog throughout, but hadn’t promoted the series anywhere; she wanted to create an authentic communal experience, not do a publicity stunt. Ross is young and extremely accomplished: she spent over a decade training with the legendary Itzhak Perlman, has played on famous stages all over the world, curates a classical music festival in Utah, and even composes her own music. We met up a couple of months after her mesmerizing performance to discuss “Discovering Bach” and what it means to perform classical music in a public space, to let it be raw.
How did you decide to do this project?
As a violinist, you have a really personal relationship with the solo works of Bach. This is the only solo repertoire that he wrote for us, and they are some of the hardest and most philosophically challenging and beautiful pieces that we have, so they represent the pinnacle. Everyone wants to play them, and doing so is a life-long process. Literally every day, if I think about this music or practice it or perform it, I’m finding new things, new ways to do it, new interpretations. Violinists don’t have a lot of repertoire compared to, say, pianists. And these works, for their artistic merit, are the greatest.
A few months earlier, Banksy had been in town and he had done his one-day-a-month graffiti experience. The thing about it that was so interesting, and how I connected the dots, was that for me graffiti as an art form connects private and public spheres. Graffiti lives on the street, so you’re not losing any of the product by putting it there and allowing a lot of people to see it. If I took my violin on a subway platform and tried to share Bach with people, it wouldn’t work, because people are busy, people are commuting, the air wouldn’t take care of the sound, it wouldn’t reach another person and I wouldn’t be doing the music or the audience justice. There would be no potential for a true experience of the music. What I wanted was to feel the rawness of the music. I wanted people to be up close, as close as I feel when I’m playing. When I’m playing it, I’m living in this world and I am completely immersed in and taken over by these works. I am in awe and I’m experiencing all of this beauty and I wanted to give that to another person, not in a concert hall.
The other big part of it was I also wanted the personal artistic challenge of doing a marathon concert, playing all six in one concert. And I thought, “Well, I’m recording these works, I’m working really hard, but the next step could be to look at this from another perspective.”
Can you tell me more about why his music in particular is so rich?
Anyone can react to Bach. I think his music has a simplicity, a naturalness, that just will speak to people. Even if they don’t know anything about music, there is something about the way he wrote that speaks to our humanity right away.
If you go deeper, you realize that Bach was a real architect. He planned everything; everything was there for a reason. And when you start to understand his language and what he is able to do within that language and within the rules of the time period, he was able to create these unbelievable cathedrals or works of art. He is really daring in how he wrote. So it’s simultaneously incredibly simple and also incredibly complex and human. And I think that combination is what’s so powerful about it.
Sometimes, as a performer, you wonder how much of yourself to put into the music. Obviously, since I’m a living, breathing person and the product of my time, it would almost be dishonest to try to remove myself from the performing aspect. There is going to be interpretation, there are going to be choices, you’re going to hear my voice at the same time. But my job, I think, is to align my voice with what I perceive to be Bach’s intentions through the music, or Bach’s voice, and to let the essence of the music speak and have that reach another person.
The music is so complex and mysterious that one of the reasons I wanted to try this project was to have the chance to perform it a lot, to try to understand how I could give that experience to a person. Bach is scary to play for people because it comes with a lot of stuff and we never feel worthy of the music.
How did you choose where to perform?
My criteria were that the spaces be free, public in nature, and have inherent potential for an intimate, profound experience of this music. So, no competition with other noises. If I played in a restaurant or a bookstore or a coffee shop, I’d tell them ahead of time so they could turn the music off.
I didn’t know what to expect because I’d never done a pop-up concert before. The first day was at the Hungarian Pastry Shop and I was really scared because there’s an energy in there: it’s intense, and people are busy or studying. I asked Philip [Binioris, the owner], “What should we do? Should we announce it?” And he said, “No. People might want a little push-back.”
My friend had reserved a table, so I sat next to her and opened up my violin sitting down. I started to tune really quietly, and the first second that I started tuning, I swear, everybody stopped talking and it was silent. So I stood up and I just started playing. I was not expecting it, and it was kind of a magical thing. That’s the moment when I said, “Okay, this is going to be fine.” It was really thrilling.
Did any place say no, that you couldn’t play there?
I can’t remember any that did, aside from scheduling issues. But I also didn’t call, like, FAO Schwarz. I put a lot of thought into where I wanted to play. I also wanted to leave a lot of room for spontaneity, so I didn’t plan every day. But even on the Staten Island Ferry, nobody stopped me, which I thought was really fun.
Were there any experiences where the audience was less enraptured, stuck in their own lives and wanting to go about their days? Or does Bach get through to everybody?
It’s hard for me to know—the only way I would be able to tell is if people were talking over me, and I didn’t experience that ever. But the connection to and perception of the audience was a totally new thing that I had to build during this project. When you’re onstage, you don’t sense the audience most of the time. You feel really safe; you feel like you’re in this shell and kind of in your own world. I always close my eyes when I play. I’m thinking about the audience in theory, but in the moment, all I’m thinking about is the music. That’s how I can give as much as I can. If I was noticing and worried about whether people were reading their programs during a concert, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. People have played through earthquakes and not noticed because the concentration is so intense.
With this project, it’s not that I started moving my focus towards the audience, but I was able to develop tentacles that could kind of sense the audience, sense what was happening, and just let it be. Afterwards, I would think about it. I never changed how I played because of the audience, but I may have gotten more confident in my own body language, my own ability to draw people in with only my music, without using any words.
I was convinced that a violinist could not do a pop-up concert. I was convinced that I would walk into a room and play and people would ignore me. And the very first day proved me wrong. The first two movements I played, people were dead silent. And then I spoke. When I played the last two movements, it was still a very quiet atmosphere, but people started going back to their worlds a little bit, maybe whispering to their tablemates. And it’s interesting that the thing that broke the tension was when I spoke.
What do you make of that?
Everyone thinks New Yorkers are busy and in their own worlds. We all are. But at the end of the day, I think people really crave push-back and people really crave something special and something surprising and something with substance.
There is a trust, also. I went in there and was open and vulnerable, in a sense. As an artist, you’re giving. And I trusted them enough to take it. I was surprised, and I think people were also probably surprised. I kept looking at this poor guy who was sitting in the corner, on that first day, literally in between my arms and the wall. I kept thinking he was going to run out from under the table and leave, but he stayed the whole time. It was really beautiful. And I think when I broke the tension by speaking it was almost like taking the veil off.
So it wasn’t just that Bach became more approachable, but you as the artist became more approachable, also.
Yeah. Also, I’m not trying to do performance art. That was a big thing for me: I’m not doing a gimmick, I’m not doing performance art. Bansky was a model to me in the sense that his product was not getting watered down. A lot of times we talk about outreach in classical music: “How can we break whatever preconceptions people might have? How can we bring classical music to people who aren’t exposed to it?” This concept of outreach is really important, but I think labeling it as outreach can sometimes make us feel like we have to explain ourselves or we have to explain the music. And I firmly disagree with that. So my whole idea was, “How can I frame this experience and give people clues as to what they need to do to take this in?”
To listen to Bach, I think you don’t need to know that his wife died. You don’t need to know that he was religious. You don’t need to know anything. You just need to open yourself up and be oriented, in a way, to receive something that requires a different kind of listening, a different kind of experiencing the world. If I felt like I needed to say something, I would have, and there were some days that I did. But because I trust the music and myself and the audience, I kind of was able to take on this spontaneous energy.
The other cool thing is that in Bach’s time, this music was meant to be played in small little chambers—it was called chamber music. So I’m actually not doing anything that out of the ordinary. Either you were supposed to play it for fun on your violin, if you had a violin, or it was supposed to be played in a small room for your family or for your friends. So this project meant kind of going back to the essence of where the music speaks the best.
Did any of the spaces surprise you in a bad way?
The cool thing about it, if it worked out badly, is that I had an outlook about the project that at the end of the day, it was also just for me to get to know the music better. So no matter what, if someone listens or not, I can’t be in control of that and I actually don’t think I should be.
What was it like to have such a rigorous performance schedule?
I chose a day in the cycle to be either as a day of rest or reflection. I tried to stay to that structure as much as possible because I knew that I was going to need to go back into my cocoon because this was a lot. Performing for 33 days straight was exhausting in ways that I never imagined. There was no buffer. All of the things that I said about being on a concert stage are actually helpful, because they preserve your energy. You have a backstage, you can tune, you can have a sound check, you’re not putting yourself in cold water and telling yourself to swim. So it was exhausting, giving myself to people every day in this way. Of course it was also so stimulating and I got so much in return. Every day I was having these really complex, meaningful experiences with strangers.
I noticed that most of the time you ended up playing on your days “off” anyway.
That’s true. One day I went to Coney Island instead and played on the boardwalk and the amusement park was all lit up and nobody was there. I was there, by myself, under this archway playing Bach to the ocean, or to the sky. I kind of like the idea of that as a symbol for what every artist in New York does every day in their studio. We’re all at home, like falling trees in the forest.
So I liked the juxtaposition of playing at a hospital and knowing that I was reaching people, and then playing on Coney Island. What does that mean? For me, it sort of hangs there as an idea of putting a mirror back to myself and recognizing that there is a solitary experience here. And as a violinist, I feel like my journey with the music is forever. It’s me on my own little path with Bach, and whether or not someone hears it, I’m still going to go on that path.
There’s a tension, though, between thinking of playing music as a solitary experience and the collaborative experience with the audience—in other words, that listening to a piece, just like reading a book, is a part of the artistic creation. Can you talk more about that tension, as well as the balance, on a more literal level, between solitary and communal experience in your daily life as an artist?
I think it’s a really important intersection, because I believe really strongly in the solitary part. That’s what I was saying about how it was exhausting. Part of me was like, “Can I skip a day?” But as a violinist and a composer, I have this ideal of living in the woods and reading Rilke and thinking about solitude and doing really good work as an artist in solitude. I think we all can relate to that image, that archetype, that an artist needs to be this solitary thing and if you remove yourself from external things, you can do really honest work. There’s something beautiful and admirable to that idea.
But there’s also this other side of it, where I think so much about being a performer is knowing that you’re almost a vessel for this music and that it needs to be shared and that it’s a gift that you have the potential to give people. A composer’s job is, to the best of their ability, to bring something to life that they have in their head. It’s almost like trying to put form to an abstract ideal. Even in the score itself, the piece is complete. And I think because it’s so complete and perfect, that’s why we have a difficult time interpreting it, because we don’t want to mess it up. But at the same time, if nobody plays it, it doesn’t go anywhere. So the performer is also really necessary.
What has it been like for you now that the project is over?
I’ve missed that daily exchange. I was benefitting so much from it, and it was so beautiful to see people’s openness towards me. Since then, I’ve gone back to my normal performing schedule, but I’m thinking about how to do this again, maybe go to another city.
Can you talk a little bit about some of the physical demands of playing the violin, especially since it’s an uneven instrument to hold? I imagine there are some postural challenges.
Oh, totally. I always think that it’s so funny that when you play the violin, your head basically has to hold something up.
Is it like holding a phone?
Well, in truth, your head isn’t really holding up the violin, but it does have to work hard. You have a long neck, I have a long neck, but if you look at pictures of all the old-school violin masters, a lot of them were men and a lot of them had short necks.
I’ve never thought of that before. It sounds like the opposite of ballet, where the shorter the neck, the easier it is.
Yeah. Physically, playing any instrument is kind of like being an athlete: you have to know your body. When I was a teenager, I got injured for the first time, so I’ve been aware of the physical challenges since I was young. In the end, I think that helped me, because it’s always horrible to be injured and to have to take time off, but if you learn to think about playing the violin as a physical thing, which a lot of time we don’t think about, it can help because it just makes your playing better.
Can I ask what the injury was?
I had tendonitis once. So I had to adjust my setup and learn how to play in a different way so I could be relaxed and remove as much tension as possible. You’re playing for hours and hours on end and your body is doing something that’s kind of unnatural. Violin is not natural. So you want to make it feel as natural as possible. You think about posture, you do yoga. I started to enjoy the athleticism of playing. Once you start to realize it and you treat yourself a little bit like an athlete, then you can take care of your body.
Do you have to eat a big meal or something to get stamina before a big performance, like a carbo load?
I’m a little funny with pre-performance. I don’t eat anything on concert days. I think that’s how I deal with nerves.
Do you have any calming rituals or you do right before you perform? What does it look like before you go on stage?
Usually, I’ll practice a really technical thing, because it kind of feels like brushing your teeth or putting money in the bank. You can always calm yourself down by doing something really clinical. But the one thing that I do which I maybe shouldn’t admit is that I put all my nerves into my hair. [Laughter] I’ll re-do my hair 10 times.
During this project, a music therapist told you that, as you wrote on your blog, “Bach in particular, because of the frequent tension and release and clear harmonic structure, can help patients who struggle with dementia to feel temporarily oriented.”
That was this really amazing music therapist who works at a veteran’s hospital in the Bronx. She was saying that music like Schumann’s, for instance, that changes characters really abruptly and is really dramatic, wouldn’t be the best choice for some patients. You’re leading someone this way and they trust you emotionally and then all of a sudden you switch directions. Bach might surprise you, but you kind of go along and you know where it’s going to go. What she was explaining is that people who are not oriented in daily life can temporarily feel grounded when they listen to music, and especially this kind of music.
You’ve mentioned Bach’s own religious background and, because you played in a cathedral during this project, I was wondering if you could talk about your own religious background and spirituality. How does it factor into your relationship with this music, if it does at all?
Well, I’m of Jewish heritage. I’m not a religious person. But I definitely am spiritual, I guess, and I think that music and art are my way of connecting with that something bigger.
When I look at Bach’s writing, I can see that he believes in God. I can see it, and I can see how it would almost make you believe, because where is this coming from? It’s something so beautiful. I think that we are tapping into something through art. We are tapping into our humanity or that something else that nobody really knows what it’s called. I think music, and this music, has that potential. It can induce awe and inspiration. So, I feel like music is a religion. If I had other words to say that, I would. But I’ve played Bach and wanted somehow to pray. You feel so much gratitude to be in front of something so beautiful and to be able to have that for yourself, I think it’s what prayer must feel like.
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This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.