A Prelude and 5 Rhythms

’So, I’ll pick Phillie up in an hour and a half then?’ said Philippa’s mum.

‘An hour will be fine’ I said.

Philippa slid into my living room and noiselessly unlatched her cello case.

‘I’ll do my best' her mum continued, 'but they are so slow at Waitrose. And next week I will have to rearrange as I have to pick up Max from tennis at the same time and Peter will be in New York.’

‘Perhaps Philippa could take the bus?’ I said.’The number seven stops right outside the house.’

‘No, I don’t think so. You know, she hasn’t been very confident since her sister…well, you know about that. No, it’s best if I drive her.’

Before I closed the door on her mother, Philippa started to play the Gigue of Bach’s first Suite. When I got settled in my chair by about the sixth bar, I asked myself the usual questions: What did I see. What did I hear? And, above all, what did I feel? I saw a girl playing as if with borrowed arms and, rather than a sweaty, heavy peasant dance, I heard the sound of someone skating over ice. I felt somewhat anxious. While I watched and listened I wondered two things: Whose desire was driving Philippa, as it it didn’t seem to be her own, and what was beneath the ice?
I don’t know what it is about nail varnish on bitten nails, but it was when I was looking at Philippa’s bow hand that I remembered what my teacher, Timothy Eddy, said to me a decade previously: ‘Something inside you has to move before you can move to play’, and it was then that I knew how I was going to approach the lesson.
When Philippa finished and we had talked through a few technical details, I asked her if she would be willing to sit with me and her cello in silence.
‘I don’t want you to play a note’ I said, ‘until, or indeed unless, you feel moved to do so. Until you genuinely feel the desire to express something. This might mean spending our hour together in silence, but that that is fine with me if it is fine with you…?’
Philippa nodded her assent. She laid her bow across the grey cotton of her school skirt. Her bare arms, slightly pimpled at the top, hung by her sides, and on the ends of them her hands seemed empty without a cello or a bow to clutch. At first her gaze flitted back and forth from me and the floor, then up and down her fingerboard, and then came to rest, I believe, on a bowl of apples on the table behind me. The silence began to feel comfortable, and the strange thing was that in it I began to have more of a sense of Philippa that when she was playing the cello. In it I thought I could sense things. Anger. Grief possibly. But at least I could sense something. We continued to sit in stillness. I heard Edith in the flat above shuffling across her living room floor, probably, though it was only four o’clock, to the drinks cabinet. A bird sang and a motorbike started up. If we listened hard enough to the quiet, I thought, we might be able to hear the sea rolling in the distance. I looked over at Philippa and saw a tear pooling in the corner of her eye. It spilled over and ran down her cheek.

‘There is no desire’ she said as more tears came, and in that moment I think we both felt the beginning of something move inside her that might, one day, move her to play.

Philippa did not come for a cello lesson the next week, but the week after that she took the number seven bus and rang my bell. She was ready, she said, to play the whole Bach suite through. She climbed the stairs, walked in to my living room, unpacked her cello and started to play, and as she did a curious thing occurred. Wherever she was in the Suite, whether it was in the Courante, the Minuets or the Sarabande, Philippa kept slipping back in to the Allemande. As I witnessed this ‘memory lapse’ time and time again, I thought that perhaps the Allemande represented Philippa’s personality. The person she presented to the world. The good Philippa, the pretty Philippa, the graceful Philippa, the Philippa that did not cry when her sister died but kept on dancing with borrowed arms. And I realized how powerful it could be for her to embody the other four dance characters: The joker, the peasant, the innocent child, the old wise man…..

It was around that time that it occurred to me that the Bach Suite, with its introduction and five dance movements, was a perfect vehicle for what Gabrielle Roth calls the 5 Rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Lyrical, Chaos and Stillness, and it was then that I started working with the dancer, Sophia Ferman.

Sophia and I worked on two Suites, the first in G major in a programme based on lullabies, and the second in D minor in a programme based on grief and healing. As I played and she improvised, we explored the fundamental human rhythms expressed through Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Minuets and Gigue. How close were these baroque movements to a contemporary dancer’s ‘Flowing, Staccato, Stillness, Lyrical and Chaos’ we asked ourselves? How did one ‘rhythm’ transform naturally into the next, Flowing into Staccato, Chaos into Stillness? Like grief arising out of anger, peace out of confusion.  It was an exhilarating and moving experience ‘being danced’ by Sophia, as if she were making visible the part of me that was moved to move to play.

As I write now, I remember a particular performance of the second Suite. It was shortly after the September 11th attacks. We were aware that a large part of the world was in a state of shock and grief, and we wanted, however small our offering, to offer up something healing. However, in the sublime Sarabande, the still climax of the work, the most potentially healing moment, Sophie’s improvised dance went ballistic. While I played the simple broken chords with which Pablo Casals started every day as a form of meditation, Sophia was making fast, jagged movements, covering the dance space with ripping and racing. Her honest response to what she heard (for that is what it always is when Sophia dances) was confusing to me at the time and I was even a little resentful. Now I think of it, however, nine years later, I wonder whether, in the stillness of the Sarabande, just as I heard Philippa’s feelings in her silence, Sophia heard the noise of the anger and grief I was feeling at the loss of our child. A personal loss dwarfed at the time by a loss that was almost global, but nevertheless a profound one.


Thanks, Ruth.