April 14, 2020
"It is the special province of music to move the heart."—Johann Sebastian Bach
Soulful creative works often have the ability to morph into effective contemplative practices. Esalen faculty Barbara Bogatin has experienced this firsthand in several ways—primarily as a master cellist with the San Francisco Symphony since 1994, but also as an active listener to classical music, which allows her to truly be in the moment.
The latter can certainly add levity during the COVID-19 pandemic, Barbara says, especially when stay-at-home mandates require many of us to consider new ways to remain grounded and present. We reached out to Barbara, who joins Dharma teacher and scientist Nikki Mirghafori and neuroscientist Clifford Saron in The Buddha, the Brain and Bach August 30 through September 4 at Esalen, and asked her what musical work truly feeds her soul at the moment.
Esalen: What musical works have inspired you the most during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Barbara Bogatin: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello in my favorite recording by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Six Evolutions (2018, Sony Classical). I’ve known this music almost as long as I’ve been playing the cello, since I was 8 years old. Choosing from the hundreds of recordings out there can be daunting and this one is Yo-Yo Ma’s third time recording them. It’s truly a culmination of his wide-ranging musical and life experience, an expression of his commitment to bring people together through the power of cultural connection.
What do you find most inspiring about this work?
The six movements of each suite—an introductory prelude followed by five dance movements—draw you into Bach’s world. It is, at times, bursting with dancing joy, poignant personal pain and inward contemplation of man’s place in the universe. Music of the Baroque era was a product of precise rules of accepted harmony and structure, and Bach’s particular genius was his ability to convey so much emotional fluency within an economy of notes and the limitations of one four-stringed box of wood played with a stick and some rough horse hair. You can start listening to any movement of the suites without knowing a thing about gavottes (a French dance) or sarabandes (the three dances for solo piano composed in 1887 by Erik Satie) and intuitively feel the moods changing subtly with the harmonic flow, carrying you along to each logical cadence. He may lead you on a winding path of progressions into unknown terrain, but he always brings you home. Whether playing or listening to this music, I settle in some place deep inside and somehow emerge with renewed optimism.
Can you tell us more about the background of this work?
Written 300 years ago, they were the first compositions to exploit the glorious sound quality, vocal range and full richness of expression hidden inside the cello. It forever altered the instrument’s importance in the musical canon. After Bach’s death in 1750, the suites went practically incognito for 150 years until the great Catalan cellist Pablo Casals discovered them in a used music shop in Barcelona in 1890. Pablo began studying and performing them around the world as his career expanded. Now some of the most well-known and beloved music in the classical genre, they are played by every instrument from cello to charango. For anyone who wants an accessible, entertaining introduction to their fascinating story, I’d recommend pop music critic Eric Siblin’s book, The Cello Suites; J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and the search for a Baroque Masterpiece. He guides us on a close-up journey into the daily lives of Bach and Casals, reading almost like a historical novel while chronicling his own relationship to the suites—from curiosity to devotion.
Why do you feel this work has had such longevity and still resonates with people today?
In Bach’s view, human beings were not the center of the Universe. Everything he did was in service to a “higher power”—in his case, a Christian God—so even though his music contains emotional depth, it’s always at a slight distance, as if saying, “I feel your pain but I am not your pain.” Rather than wearing his heart on his sleeve, he writes in a way that encourages us to connect to our own internal state. This could be why Bach is called to duty at moments of great emotional or spiritual importance—weddings, funerals, memorials after 9/11. With utmost dignity, he reminds us of our shared humanity. As Yo-Yo Ma said, “There is something about the music that makes things whole. The message is, 'Together we are so much more powerful to deal with intractable challenges. Culture can dispel fear. Fear makes us smaller, culture makes us larger.'”
How can this work help us through COVID-19?
People experience grief, pain, longing in different ways. Sometimes we’re afraid to let in the suffering we witness in the world. It feels like all that pain will break us. Perhaps because the cello’s tone pierces right into the heart and encompasses the entire range of the human voice, from bass to soprano, everyone feels her own voice is reflected on an unconscious level. I think this is wonderful music to listen to after meditation or while walking in nature. If we quiet our minds and listen deeply, just allowing the music to be, we are able to take in just as much as we can bear. We can be present to all the emotions expressed in this music, finding within it a more hopeful view of the world. Bach recognized that suffering is at the same time very personally palpable and an undeniable enduring element of the human condition. He reminds us of an earlier time, joy in the simple things, the urge to dance, the buoyancy of life.
How would you sum up this work with a word or phrase?
We are all human. We can cry, but we can also smile.