Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The One with the Sound

"My innermost dream is condensed to “Human Flourishing” I had lots of opportunities to flourish and I hope to have many more. I want to live to be old and knowledgeable.. Peaceful. Content".

We have sorely underestimated that first sunny spring day in a long chain of rainy days. When we arrived at our photoshoot, the sun was already high up in the sky and it had a strength that we were to discover only too late. Usually, I would ask for permission to re-schedule the photoshoot and concentrate on just the interview but in this case, the harsh contrast between light and shadows was befitting to the very things in our conversation. David’s face became a canvas, telling some stories of its own while we were talking about cello, yoga, enlightenment, love, mortality, secrets, mental health and even exchanging parenting perspectives.  

 First time I met David it was purely by chance at the Pink Lady luncheon organised by Breast Cancer Network Australia. The technical director of the event made me aware of David’s presence and when I reviewed the photos I have taken while volunteering to cover the event, I had a candid shot that I just knew I had to get it to their right owners, musicians David Pereira and Isobel Ferrier. 

I set into this “A Hat of Many Dreams” project with no expectations. I just wanted to talk to people and photograph them while we uncovered their stories together. I wanted a collective portrait of our moment in time. I wanted people from all walks of life and I don’t have any filtering applied (at least not consciously) in selecting my sitters. However, it may be that strange intuition when one finds their own tribe, but lately I have been fortunate to find some really remarkable artists.

A renowned musician, composer and cellist. A yoga teacher. A writer and a thinker. A husband, a parent to 7 and grandfather to one. What if I told you they are all dimensions of the same person? It is not an easy task to strike a conversation with strangers and get them to open up to me. It is not easy to get portraits that would do them justice, without knowing them at all. But when I saw David barefoot on the grass, I didn’t need any justification to kick my own shoes off. I did it and I knew we’ll be alright. The dialogue just flowed naturally – and what a memorable experience it was.  

- I have no idea what I wanted to be when I was a little child; I have no recollection of these thoughts because I was completely contempt in my childhood. I enjoyed being a child and I didn’t see past that. Very often, I had no idea what was the time – it was a natural way of being. My mother would say: “come home before it’s dark”; I wouldn’t know if it was 11:00hrs am or 14:00hrs. I was just a child, happy to play and to be a child. 
The first time I had thoughts about my future occurred when I was about 15yo. My father was driving me to Sydney – to the Conservatorium High School for my Year 10; at that time my education already had the musical emphasis. I was so naïve; I was not used to think about my future and I remember that day when I thought “if this is not going to work, then I can always go back home and be a teacher like dad. “

- There might have been stories that I liked as a child, but the 1st thing that I can remember from when I was 4, is a song called “the little blue man”. The song is about a little blue man following a woman and telling her “I wuv you, I wuv, you. I wuv you to bits’. In the end she leads him on a rooftop and pushes him down; he then tells her “I don’t wuv you anymore”. I didn’t really understand the narrative of the song, which was a hit in 1957, but apparently I was crazy about it. Now I can think - was he stalking her? Was she psychotic? Who knows! 

- I don’t think I was ready to grow up and I didn’t think about the future. I was a great student – school captain in 2 different schools (in the times when teaches still chose the captains). I was nerdy, but never bashed up, which is quite surprising in those times when schoolyard fights were common. In some real way, my childhood was a very sheltered one and then, there came this time when my whole world changed; my parents split up and suddenly there was no more home to go back to, if things didn’t work. Not the home I knew, anyway. 

Because I saw my parents’ marriage dissolve so catastrophically, I paradoxically embraced the notion of ideal love. Coming out of high school, I always thought I am going to find THE one woman to spend my life with – it became an ambition to find her and be together for a lifetime. I wanted to be the man in a great love and at age 20, when I thought I found her, I would have been happy to sacrifice everything for that. I told her I wanted to devote my life to her. She replied she didn’t want that kind of relationship – she was wise. I was victim of a romantic notion, to think that the core of one’s happiness and whole existence could only come exclusively through one’s relationship. 

- My dream back then was to be a very good cellist. I went to the Conservatory for tertiary music studies. Gradually, I improved. I went to USA; I spent 4 years at Indiana University doing a Master Degree in cello and most of a doctorate as well. I joined the Indianapolis Orchestra and then one day – I must have been about 26yo – the phone rang: I suddenly had 2 job offers in Australia, to play in professional ensembles. So I came back. 

 - Who I am now? I am a parent, a husband; I am myself and a musician. A cellist. Do I like it? Definitely. My existence is a charmed one. Recently, on my birthday, I had to admit that I could not believe how fortunate I am.
Meanwhile I embrace also a life full of imperfections. I am aware of how desperately terrible is the life of so many other people and I am grateful for my existence. I find it remarkable to live so long; how could I complain when I have been allowed to live for 63 years already? I think I was 7 when I first became aware of death. I remember lying in bed, calculating how long I had. I thought I was only a 1/10th or 1/12th towards my death. Then, when I was 40, for a short while I thought I was going to die. I had melanoma and I remember thinking that I won’t be able to see my kids grow. I also remember being upset about not being able to hug a tree – that moment, when facing the possibility of death, hugging a tree seemed like a really big deal. My 5yo at the moment has a phase where she is afraid of dying. So I asked her what made her be afraid. She told me “I am scared that I won’t be able to play with my toys”. In a way, me wanting to hug a tree has the same correlation with her toys.  

- I was married to a Hungarian immigrant and we had 4 children. When our youngest child was 9, our marriage fell apart. After that, I met another amazing woman. The question you should ask me is “why did you decide to have 3 more children with her?” It’s a question I have to answer to my other children – I love all my children and it is important to me that they know how much I love them. The answer to this question goes back to the same quest, when I was 15. I wanted an amazing relationship and I wanted her to be the mother of my children; I didn’t want to be a Sugar Daddy; I just wanted, again, a complete relationship with this woman who came later into my life. So, instead of fancy clothing, cruises and a life of luxury, I chose nappies, parenting duties, meetings with teachers who won’t look you in the eye… All the little things coming with this great task called being a parent. I am happy with my choice. 

You should ask me what is the best thing I learned about parenting. I’ve been parenting without a break for 30 years; you never stop being a parent. I am a student of my own expertise but the best thing I have learned is to trust that my children will turn out ok rather than worrying they won’t. Raising my presently 12yo son, I’ve learned to go on with his enthusiasm even if I don’t always find it exciting (things like computer games). If you listen to the little things, they’ll tell you the important ones too, later on. I place a lot of importance on expressing to my children how much I admire them and how much I trust them.  

- My innermost dream? I think I mentioned almost everything that matters and that allows me continuity. I would love to have the luxury of continuing these narratives; to be a really good father, husband and cellist; and to become more enlightened before I die. If I had to condense it, I’d call it “Human Flourishing” I had lots of opportunities to flourish and I hope to have many more. I want to live to be old and knowledgeable.. Peaceful. Content. How great would it be if I was 100yo and my knees still worked? I am highly motivated by having a 5yo daughter. I would like to be at her wedding and speak intelligently! I would like to spare my children the experience of having to talk about their dead father... while they still are young. I kind of made myself, my wife and my children this promise that I would do everything possible not to die soon.

I told David that without knowing him, I see him as a free spirit. He regaled me with a few confessions. 

- I had my crisis of Christian Faith early – I must have been 18. I wanted a sign that God existed. And no sign came; I figured there was no such sign and that I could not believe with any confidence in a God that hides. I told myself that I would rather believe in nothing, than believe in something that isn’t true. Now I’m inclined to suspect that belief and faith are simply wishful thinking .Life is more than wonderful enough for me… just as I find it.

 - When I was 50, I had a nervous breakdown – I learned so much from that mental collapse; the most important thing being that if I kept doubting myself I would be miserable for life. There wasn’t really an alternative so I picked up my game. I learned not to be superstitious and I drew my wisdom from my own learning; much like Shakespeare’s Hamlet -“To thine own self be true” - I learned to trust myself and absolutely to stop worrying. I don’t think there is enough emphasis on the importance of mental health. In media, so many people disguise it and what a dreadful change it brings, with the world being populated by lots of people who don’t trust themselves. When it comes to artists and obsession, there is plenty of room for misunderstanding. For example, a strong interest in fine detail is not the same thing as an unhealthy obsession.

 - I have never had aspirations that I could not share with my family but I do have my secrets. Things that I wouldn’t tell the others because they wouldn’t like it or because they would get bored. My family would probably be surprised by this, because they are convinced I cannot keep secrets. I think that the human being is built to have a private life too; it’s not against having a relationship with another. It’s healthy, too, to have your own thoughts and private experiences.  

 - What keeps me going? My love for my family. I want my children to know that I love them. I want them to have the confidence that they come from a good father. When kids don’t have confidence, it breaks them. If either the respect or love is missing, it damages them; it’s a scary responsibility. 

 - The most important question you should ask me is what I have learned about love. Because I have learned a few things that make sense.
First of all, it’s very good that I am enthusiastic about the changes in my wife and that I am supporting her. I am against that entire “keep the spark” thing. I find it very unrealistic, to feel the same. The power of a relationship is well served by the way each individual grows and by how each individual accepts their own changes as well as their partner’s. It’s delighting to see how the one you love continues to evolve and to delight you. We can feel grateful, too, when the other encourages us to change. “You’re not the person I married!” - should be taken as a compliment.
Life has taught me that often when there is conflict and misunderstanding, it’s better to let it go and move on, rather than to keep analysing it. I came into adulthood when Freudian analysis was very highly regarded and I was persuaded that the analysis was needed in order that one can become whole. I now think that it is more likely dangerous and unhealthy. I think people love to be regarded as whole and ready for improvement. It might work for a lot of people to let unpleasant things go, rather than analysing it again and again. We don’t necessarily need that closure, the resolution. It’s quite OK to live with not knowing about all things. It’s quite necessary sometimes.  

The most important thing I learned about love is that it enhances my empathy and compassion. I find that my empathy has increased a lot, when I consider that the woman I love, however she is at a given moment, I know that I made her be that; the way she is in relation to me. If she is happy or unhappy, I contributed to that. She paid a high price by being my woman, by limiting her choices. It’s a two-way street, too. I pay my price also. 

I always ask my sitters what they would do with those 15 minutes of fame but since David has already known fame on quite a large scale, I asked him to answer my question from any perspective, be it past, present or future.  

 - I’d be glad if there was a larger recognition of my knowledge and skills as a musician. I would love to become more prominent – it’s again that human flourishing that I mentioned earlier: all things being equal, if I have good things to offer, I would love to offer it on a larger scale. And on a larger stage. Although I am in my 60s, I am more ambitious now. When I turned 60, it felt different being me and I wondered if the others saw me different too. I have been seeing different aspects of aging around me; I was very aware of feeling 60 for a while, but after a year I decided I better get over it. When I was younger, there was a cello element that I thought I could improve. I have the same feeling now. 
At the same time, there is a whole new thing happening, as I became a grandparent and that involved moving. How could I be a good parent without being a good grandparent too? I love the coast and its lifestyle but in the end I opted to move closer; when you live 90 minutes away, you are not lived with, you are visited. I didn’t want to be visited; I wanted to be a parent.  

Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time? It’s a question I ask my sitters for more than one reason. That short glimpse at their own projection of the future it’s a tale of its own.  

- I hope to have as much fun as I can, to be as glad as I can be. I learned that gladness is great; a very underrated feeling and more readily available than joy. You can feel gladness many times a day without needing to win the lottery. 

- My first role model was my father and my mother. Now I am trying to be my own role model. I am still figuring out what I am supposed to be and not try to be like the others. The downside to having a teacher is that sometimes you sit on your teacher’s shoulders and you don’t get to figure out things for yourself. 
My father often expressed his surprise at how similar I was to him, because he never intended me to be like him. 

I’d like to be that father who lets his son figure out how he wants to be and my 12yo son is teaching me just that parenting lesson by being independent. Many times when I ask him whether he needs help he declines. I asked him once ‘Why not? I let my father help me.” And his answer was really great “I want to be unique”.

- One book that I really loved was “Lord of the Rings”; I was about 20yo when I read it. I loved reading it so much and then I felt so sad when I finished it. Then I was looking for another one, then another one…I became concerned that it takes me away from reality.  

 - My biggest regret is that I was so slow in learning some important things. Like trusting myself. 

- The best place to be, the place where I am at peace and I am myself is when I am meditating.  

As a musician, I really like to compose music too, not just interpret it. Composing is a bit like the Venn diagram; I find equal joy in playing, teaching, composing and writing about all these things – I see it all intersecting in many ways. It makes me feel a complete musician. I have a very ambiguous, dualistic relationship to music: On one hand, it’s everything that matters. But on the other hand, it doesn’t matter at all. Sometimes there’s nothing better than silence. 

(And of course, this was the best moment for me to bring into discussion John Cage’s “4.33”; because while David is one with the sound, he also understands silence). 

- My philosophy of life: I don’t think I am interesting; I think it’s quite important to have a speck of recognition that one is nothing. We have no idea what is the game we are playing; we don’t even know where we live and how it’s been constructed; most fundamental questions about space aren’t answered. 
There are these perspectives, like nihilism: there’s no meaning into things and we might die. My perspective is: it’s true that I don’t really know, but I can make 2 choices: I can have the best time I can, or not. I chose to get as much gladness as I can. This is not a hedonistic approach; I just find it silly not finding this gladness that can come to us in many ways, even through serving people. 

With such an ample life experience, in so many fields, I wondered if David can still be surprised by people. And how. 

- The first thing that comes to my mind is that people continue to be moved by their experiences, it touches me that they cry because of their experiences; be it a happy or a dreadful one. I was watching recently “Conviction”, a recent documentary about a journalist killed on her way home. The detective in charge of the investigation is a man who has seen quite a few things in his life. Yet he breaks down and cries. He talks about the sand pit he built but he never played in; about not being at his daughter’s 21st birthday and then he bursts in tears. To me, it is amazing how we cry for joy or for sorrow, in a cosmos that we don’t understand. It gives me hope.  

One of my best friend in my childhood introduced me to an early secret, demonstrating how well music and maths work together and how they complete each other. It’s a symbiosis that I could never try for myself, as I don’t excel at either, but one that I often thought about. Naturally, I wanted to ask David how music and yoga work together. 

- For a long time I thought that music brought humans to a highly desired state of consciousness. If not that, then at least it was a healthy exercising of the emotions. Increasingly, I became interested in finding out what could be a state of consciousness. Is music a distraction from what brings us to consciousness? If there is such a thing as simply being, I shouldn’t be worried about music or about silence as neither of them points to meditation. Meditation I enjoy best leaves out everything it can; the meditative state provides a link between music and silence, a link that I can be conscious of.
There is another link too; a student is likely to wonder what is the best use of body? In my experience, I found while practicing Yoga Asana that the best technique brings positive qualities of the body in playing the cello. When you achieve that, they are married powerfully with each other. I use my body the same way in playing the cello as in practicing yoga. And vice-versa; I practice them to be better at both.  

It was after a couple of years of practicing with an excellent yoga teacher when I finally understood the meaning of what is essential. You know how in music you start with being focused on learning the notes, then as you get better, your focus shifts to how well can you get that “F” out, then it shifts again to your technique, then on the quality of the sound, and so on. In my cello playing, my best moments were when I was no longer aware that I was playing the instrument. I was one with the sound. So I asked my teacher what would it be in yoga, if one day I wouldn’t be aware of the breathing? She said: “that would be Nirvana”. 

All these things we are paying attention to, they are just the means to get there; it allows us eventually to become enlightened. The downside is that maybe we never really needed to do them at all. The greatest spiritualists say that we could have been enlightened at any moment – it was there all along. But the answer is, you can never get to that enlightenment without the hard work.  

There is this book by Herman Hesse, “The Glass Bead Game” that had a great impact on me. Hesse never describes exactly what it really is; we have to imagine the game and be masters at it. The story ends abruptly, with the main character drowning in a lake. In the end, the knowledge suddenly doesn’t matter at all. It is a book that marked me profoundly in many ways. 

I have a paradoxical attitude towards life; on one had I tell myself that things don’t matter but I am trying to be good at it, if I choose to do something. That is why I don’t play golf. 

- It’s a paradox; I don’t believe in anything but I do believe in a man’s tears. And music, potentially, is about human beings. There is a tight relation that we have with nature and habitat. If I had to make a choice between trees and skies versus music, I’ll probably throw the music out and choose nature. 

What motivates David best: Success or Failure? 

- Looking back in time, I would say failure. When I was 40, it was not a great time for me. My marriage was in crisis, I had been diagnosed with melanoma and for a short while I thought I was going to die. Then I developed a shaking in my arm. It started shaking uncontrollably and I had to stop playing. My first thought was that I had a faulty playing technique. It’ was pretty intensive at the time. I felt that if I didn’t continue to be the bread winner I was failing my family. I was convinced that my problem was technical, connected to the use of my body in playing, as I have been diagnosed with focal hand dystonia. So I thought I should change my technique. I remember being on the Black Mountain and thinking of my options: I could go to a trusted colleague and ask them to teach me their bowing technique; I could teach myself all over again, or I could quit. But I wasn’t ready to quit and I realised the best way to get through this crisis was to become my own teacher, observing the differences. It took a long time and my technique changed a lot over the years. I wasn’t even going to be sure of the outcome but I kept persevering. I started when I was 40 and I can only say now that I am content with it. I often see myself as a slow learner.  

 If I had to use only one word to describe myself, I would say “determined”. 

I asked David to describe his teaching style, especially after hearing that he encourages his music students to learn yoga. 

- My teaching style is gentle, respectful, enthusiastic. I learned early that I don’t want to bully anyone. I would suggest things for my students but I would never let myself being the bully. Much like the doctors: first of all, do no harm. I always communicate with my students that I admire them and value them as human beings - that is where the true teaching begins. Sometimes I wish my students were more determined in asking themselves how they could do things better and how they can improve. 

Apart David’s capacities as a musician and teacher, there’s more than meets the eye. Out of modesty, he didn’t speak to me about the books he wrote but I didn’t let him off the hook because I was very curious to know why “The Larrikin Cellist”. 

- Because of the importance of not being a pawn of others; of not giving oneself to just one cause because more often than not it turns out to be unworthy.  
I had deep suspicions regarding institutions and teachers. We humans seem to get the worst when we form in collective and institutions. But how can we not? The trouble is that they become corrupt. So I like my own space, not corrupted, not being part of the collective. Cellists are classical musicians and they tend to be subdued by the institutions. Lots of musicians are disappointed with their experience, being treated as note-producers and not as creative individuals. Universities and Belief systems can be disappointing in that regard; they say they bring what is needed but often they become dictatorial voices. I guess I am a larrikin in maintaining my position and my right to oppose what I don’t think fair. 

In writing books, I was essentially proving myself that I know something about what matters in our field. I think the books got better gradually but I don’t think I have yet written with enough motivation and skill; they are probably just archiving material. I would like to write again about playing cello or about yoga, or – why not – about both.  

 - I would also like to make a real difference in raising awareness about mental health. There is this line between real and imaginary worlds and I learned on my own a lot about the important difference between them. Imagination on itself is healthy and usually it’s a kind of reality that one needs not be afraid of. However the proliferation we recently see in art journals and movies where there is not so much of a blurring line between real and imaginary can be dangerous. I am still guided by my common sense but I keep thinking that if the humanity was starting to doubt this difference, we’d be in real trouble. As an artist, I am ambivalent, of course but the difference is in being guided. Sometimes, I am wondering if one of humankind’s failings is to be seduced by imagination. But it can also be healthy; it has its importance just like the bare foot on grass. Sometimes, I hope religions will disappear forever. It doesn’t mean I am an atheist; it means we could do much better by being ourselves rather than by being disciples.  
I was intrigued about his “Mount Ainslie Raising” composition, so I asked David about its meaning. 

– I had a commission to write about a Canberra element. I’ve run up Black Mountain and Mount Ainslie on foot thousands of times. I chose Mount Ainslie because of Chris Latham. I wanted to write a big, dramatic piece but Mt. Ainslie is just a knoll. So I wrote it as I was imagining it rising. 

As an artist, I have always been fascinated by synaesthesia and the way it works. I spent numerous years trying to explain it to myself as well as employing various other senses to enhance what I offer visually. I love combining images and sounds and I have a genuine interest in discussing it with other artists. I was very curious to find out more about David’s collaboration with Carlos Barrios. Are the sounds and colours spontaneous, or is there any planning involved?

- There is a brief; we discuss beforehand and we try to improvise to each other’s work. One time I took one of his painting home and I made a composition as my response to it. He would also listen to one of my compositions and paint it out. Then we’ll take it out there and see if audience can guess – they did each time. 

5 hours from our meeting, we were still talking and upon parting, I had one last question about “Fish River Improvisation” – I wanted to find out how that piece was born. 

- That was definitely an improvisation on the spot. Someone introduced me to a Wiradjuri man and I didn’t know what to expect. I took my cello with me without knowing whether I am going to use it. We sat there in silence for a while and then the cello came out somehow and I started to play it. Interestingly, only low notes came to life. I and my cello were humbled by Nature itself, I guess.

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