“We may reject knowledge of the past as the end of education and thereby only emphasize its importance as a means. When we do that we have a problem that is new in the story of education: How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?” – Dewey, Experience and Education
“Great Books of the Western World and the Syntopicon, an index to the great ideas, is the other set of books that serves us in our effort to complete the enrichment of our minds – going beyond information and knowledge to understanding and wisdom. The great ideas are not objects of knowledge. That is why the grasp of them is not conveyed by a general encyclopedia. When the mind thinks about any of the basic subjects of human interest, it is engaged in the understanding of the great ideas and, as that understanding enlarges and deepens, it begins to open the door to the wisdom we need for the good conduct of our lives.” Mortimer Adler, The Great Conversation
Two questions we must ask ourselves: What is revolutionary in our approach?
And will it move the conversation forward?
The cello is a bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths. It is a large instrument and is used in a number of ways, such as solo performance, chamber music, string orchestras, and even rock bands. Yes, even rock and roll. A look at the evolution of this instrument may evidence an analogous path to that of history’s great ideas.
The cello’s original name was violoncello, Italian for little violone. The violone slowly disappeared and was replaced by the louder version, the violin. The cello evolved too, but was not as popular as the smaller violin. It is currently the norm to say “cello” instead of the full violoncello. (On a side note, viol (vitula) is Latin for stringed instrument.) Around 1750, the cello size became standardized, though other changes would slowly unfold over the next two centuries.
As with the evolution of strings in general, the cello began its evolution in the Baroque period among such composers as Bach and Beethoven. But the cello’s versatility was not tested until much more recently. Symphonies include a cello section and sometimes they are allowed a solo, but it is rarely considered a standalone instrument. Furthermore, churches deemed the cello unsuitable for most church music (though it came to be paired with organs, pianos and other instruments). The earliest known manual for cellists was written in 1741, though the instrument began to gain importance after 1800.
The cello, then, made huge gains in popularity in the 20th century. Adaptations of cello music began to filter into many different areas. In the 1970s, for example, the cello took part in disco’s quick rise, due in large part to a cellist from Iowa, Arthur Russell. Russell found inspiration among New York discos as well as gospel, R&B and poetry. A perfectionist, he sought music in all its avenues. As often happens when boundaries are blurred, however, disagreements arose in the recording studio, and Russell’s visions were never fully accomplished. One of Russell’s friends claimed, “People were upset because he was bringing heavy drums into the avant-garden, but they missed the point that he was bringing in a proposal for an infinite and all-inclusive form much in the manner of Cage’s dictum that all noise, including silence, was music to enlightened ears. What he was saying was that dance music was simply the latest form of classical music.”* Russell never felt that he actually accomplished what he wanted to in the music industry. Perhaps, the industry or the public (or both) was not yet ready for boundaries to be completely erased. However, the residue of the cello’s entrance into the disco scene was to prepare the public for the introduction of the cello into mainstream music.
The life of an artist is intense and often subject to opportunity. Some artists never find their chance while others play smaller venues and enjoy a quieter existence. It is questionable as to whether contemporary society adequately supports the current number of trained classical musicians. However, Yo-Yo Ma, a child prodigy, charmed the world with his cello. He has traveled the world and played every type of music imaginable. Ma has performed with various artists and recorded nearly 30 albums. Clearly, the cello has a market and so does classical music. Yo-Yo Ma’s music enriched the world by allowing the single voice of the cello to take the lead. Yo-Yo Ma has played bluegrass, ancient Chinese music, and the tango all on a cello. He has paired the cello with street dances such as jookin**. He played on popular television programs such as The West Wing and even provided the original score for the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is no question, he is an exemplary musician and has used his talent to raise awareness of both music and culture through a single instrument.
So, where does one go from here? Yo-Yo Ma has achieved great success, the cello has traveled from sidelines to the forefront of the music industry. What began in Europe has now amazed the world and the world is beginning to understand the importance and versatility of the cello. And then, two young men from Croatia combined forces to play rock and roll utilizing nothing more than two cellos. This is the way that boundaries disappear. The band 2Cellos erases the line between genres as they demonstrate the versatility and ability of the cello, electric or instrumental. They play a surprising array of music, from Nirvana to Michael Jackson to AC/DC to Vivaldi. What will be next?
The path of the cello as noted in this brief, incomplete history is similar to the path of an idea. We are engaged in a great conversation and by participating in it, we also engage in the enthusiasm and excitement that results. These results will amaze, much like the audience astounded by two cellists, dressed in Baroque costume who flawlessly play AC/DC’s Thunderstruck. It is worth watching: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uT3SBzmDxGk
*Arthur Russell brings cello to disco music: http://www.waxpoetics.com/features/articles/disco-savant-arthur-russell/
**Lil Buck on jookin: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61QopETqcwU
Yo-Yo Ma’s version of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EcR6j_JNwQs
For more on cello research and cello music collections: http://library.uncg.edu/info/depts/scua/collections/cello/
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