In the summer of 2002, I moved to my current home in central Paris—a small rented apartment in a wonderful neighborhood, steps from the Bastille, street markets, movie theaters, and the Place des Vosges. (Some of you may have seen my photos of the Place des Vosges on Facebook. Here’s a sampling.)
There are only four apartments in the building, one per floor. No elevator. Some years ago there was a change in proprietorship to the apartment upstairs from me, but the occupants of the two others have stayed put for the past 14 years: an Argentinian architect up top, a computer fellow downstairs.
This story is, ostensibly, about the fellow downstairs.
He has sensitive ears. And he doesn’t like it when I practice the cello or the piano at home.
Practice is normal; it’s my lifeblood; it’s oxygen, nourishment, pleasure, love, and also part of my work and my livelihood. At the time I moved here, I was preparing my first CD, “Old New Worlds” (an anthology of lyrical 20th-century music for cello and piano). I’d be hacking away at the Debussy sonata, and the fellow would ring my bell. “Could you please not practice before noon?”
He’d ring the bell some days later, when I’d be hacking away at the Hindemith variations. “Could you please not practice on Sundays?”
Then he’d ring the bell again when I was hacking at . . . well, you get the idea. Most of the time it was not possible for me to practice at home, whether I was hacking or playing beautifully. The musicians among you will understand how I felt. Finding a convenient home is a permanent worry, headache, heartache, and pain in the butt for the majority of musicians.
My choices were clear: kill the neighbor; give up the cello; or go practice somewhere else. Kicking and screaming, I looked for a music home away from home.
It took me some time to realize that there was a suite of practice rooms around the corner from me. It’s called Studio Campus. Good opening hours: 10 AM to midnight on weekdays, from 12 noon to 8 PM on weekends. Very inexpensive: five euros fifty per hour (six bucks). There’s a coffee machine, forty cents for an espresso. Friendly staff.
My shift to the Studio Campus coincided with the unfolding of a long-term process as regards my music making. The career of a mainstream cellist wasn’t suited to me, or me to it; to make a very long story very short, the career and I didn’t “fit.” My CD project of 2002 was partly a last hurrah. The thing is, I didn’t know what my true path was.
Believe it or not, it was at Studio Campus that I found my path.
After discovering Studio Campus, it took me some extra time to realize that practicing there was, like, you know, kinda nifty. Kinda, like, much better than practicing at home. I discovered that it was useful to book time slots in advance to practice. It created both a constraint and a commitment, like going to an office. It’s preferable not to have infinite amounts of time to practice. A strict schedule invites smarts.
The rooms at Studio Campus are acoustically well isolated. Plus, most people who practice and rehearse there are young rockers having a good time. If I decided to scream like a maniac for three hours, nobody would knock on my door and ask me not to scream on Sundays. This permanently removed a layer of judgment from my music making. I mean, self-judgment. You know how that goes: I had been as critical of myself as the downstairs fellow was.
I stopped practicing the mainstream repertory, and I started fooling around. I’d play long slow open strings, droning like a ship’s foghorn. I started hearing the drone’s harmonics. I started singing in unison with the drone, then in consonance and dissonance with the harmonics. It was divine. It made me want to sing ever more, and . . . I sang ever more, until I became a singer through and through.
One day I was idly plucking the bottom strings in rhythm: C, G; C, G; C, G. I became as if transfixed. Some little tap opened in my brain, and I decided to improvise a no-holds-barred parody of Ravel’s “Bolero,” those C-G motherpluckers my only accompaniment. I made a fool of myself, and my voice became huge and perverted and ridiculous and gorgeous. I had connected to that ancestral fiend, the Trickster: an amoral monster who’ll do anything for a laugh, and who happens to be an archetype of creativity.
Another time I was tuning my cello, when one of the strings slipped well below its normal pitch. I pizzicato’ed it, then strummed all the strings together. Hmmm, interesting—let’s practice with this new tuning. Hmmm, let’s improvise a song. Hmmm, let’s cry for joy ‘cos we’re feelin’ real good. I had discovered the healing power of music, plus the art of scordatura (or unorthodox string tuning). Over the years, I ended up developing a huge repertoire of original compositions in varied tunings.
There are eight practice studios at Campus, each with a different set of acoustic qualities. It’s wonderful to alternate studios and hear whole new dimensions of your sound, day after day. Each studio has a drum kit. One day I decided to improvise a percussion piece: “Mano a Mano.” Here it is.
A young Frenchman who plays the taiko (a Japanese drum) got hold of me one day and said, “Let’s play together.” We got involved, and we’re now musical collaborators. The taiko and the scordatura cello, plus two singing and screaming voices? Never before in the history of music. We’re the first, and the only.
Ah, did I tell you that there’s a recording studio upstairs at Campus? Led by a sensitive and helpful engineer with a heart of gold? And did I tell you that I ended up recording an entire CD with Jean-charles Versari?
And did I tell you that I made friends and plugged into a community and started taking piano lessons? And did I tell you that we’d cry for joy ‘cos we were feelin’ real good? Sorry, I’m repeating myself now. You would repeat yourself, too, if you found your path three blocks away from home. “I found my path! I found my path! I found my path!”
Would all these things have happened if the fellow downstairs wasn’t bothered by my music making? It’s impossible to say for sure. The universe is an intricate web of forking paths, and anytime you turn left, you leave behind the millions of possibilities that existed to your right. Maybe I’d have stumbled upon the Studio Campus by some other combination of left-right-right-left moves. But believing in Destiny and its threshold guardians is much more fun than believing in pure chance. The fellow downstairs said, “Not here. There.” And I’m grateful I went there.
©2016, Pedro de Alcantara