Over the past three weeks I drove through Washington, Oregon and California to do some research for my new novel. While I was in San Francisco I had the good fortune to hear Paul Hindemith’s Cello Concerto (1940) performed by Yo-Yo Ma with the San Francisco Symphony.
As Ma’s fingers worked the cello fret board and strings the air rang with a complexity of sound I’d never heard before. To say that Yo-Yo Ma is a brilliant cellist is common-place. But what struck me was the remarkable aura he emitted during the breaks in his performance when he was not playing a note—the respites when the orchestra carried the music through the transitions that moved the score forward without the soloist.
In these brief interludes Ma sat back in his chair and scanned the musicians, the maestro (Michael Tilson Thomas) and the audience surrounding him. Ma’s face was lit by the forces streaming through him, his knowledge and talent and years of practice and study—all of it compacted in the moment of his performance which was both completely under his control, yet completely controlling every molecule in his being.
This reciprocal stream of creative energy reminded me of the current Dalai Lama, a man whose face glows despite the unending trouble and grief he encounters day after day. In his case, I suspect he’s sustained by faith in the unity of the one and the many: the knowledge that his place in the world is like a fading rose nourished by forces which will reinvigorate his mission for generations to come.
Is this the same stream of being that “totally scared” Yo-Yo Ma—an experience that made him “an infinitely richer person”? The answer is not as important to me as the thought that an artist has to enter a psychological world that is both enlightening and frightening, energizing and enervating, a vortex of the one and the many.
Sometimes I’ve been afraid to explore this world, the places my fictional characters have created. But I tell myself that I have to look upon their scenes with unblinking eyes and transmit what I see without censorship or the slightest filtration.
My greatest fear is that I’m not up to the task. Too often I turn away, or it seems the language that I need to convey this meta-reality is beyond my grasp. The work is too huge, too ambitious for me to render competently. What sustains me is the idea that there is no other task worth doing. That, and the transcendent look on the faces of Yo-Yo Ma and the Dalai Lama. I would give a lot to wear their faces for even a few moments.