The Human Cello
Guest Essay by Juliana Soltis
“All you do is play the cello — -that’s all there is to you! No one is ever going to love you because you’re so boring.”
It’s curious, how quickly your life can change. T. and I had met as undergraduate students at the New England Conservatory; we had been together nearly five years when he impulsively spoke the words that effectively ended our relationship. These weren’t the last words he ever spoke to me — -I dimly recall, through the high-pitched whine of my nervous system and the thudding of my heart in my ears, the hasty, reparative murmurings spilling out of the phone — -but they are the last ones that I remember. An early spring thunderstorm caused the call to drop, and I never called him back.
Interestingly enough, that was not the first time that I found myself on the receiving end of such a comment. It was also not the last. It is a remark meant as an insult: an indictment of how I have chosen to spend my time on the planet. Does it hurt? Yes, absolutely. It is a statement that is meant to harm, but one which simultaneously inspires in me no small amount of morbid fascination. Why the focus on the instrument? “You wouldn’t be anything without that cello,” a teen-aged colleague said to me nearly two decades ago. It perplexes me because of the emphasis on the external: you only play the cello, you are nothing without the cello. Do I play the cello? Well, yes — -obviously. I have done so for almost twenty-five years. But what these detractors who would hurl my instrument in my face as a means of tearing me down and assailing my life choices fail to grasp is this: the cello is just an instrument. And I mean that in the purest sense of the word: that the cello is a tool, the means by which I give voice to that indefinable something within me that relentlessly seeks manifestation in the physical world. Were there suddenly no more cellos, or were it that there had never been any such thing as a cello, that something within me would still be there, straining and striving towards expression. It is both the best and worst of who I am, and it exists and endures independent of any instrument — -including the cello.
So when Alex Waterhouse-Hayward and I first struck-up a correspondence regarding the possibility of doing a photoshoot together, I knew that I wanted to do something special: an homage to Man Ray’s well-known image, Le Violon d’Ingres (1924). This would be controversial. Women in male-dominated fields often go to great lengths to downplay their gender and sexuality; Facebook photos and posts are self-censored and policed, workplace clothing is carefully calculated to be just feminine enough, but never too much so. These women do not commonly pose nude. A close friend and colleague, confused upon seeing the first images from my shoot with Alex, asked “Are you trying to make a statement, or something?”
Yes, the photograph is a statement — -though not in the way that people might think. It could be about body image; it could be about sexual expression. It could be a defiant statement about the purposeful suppression of the feminine identity in the arts. What it is about, however, is far more personal. For me, the image is a powerful visual allegory. As its focal point: my bare body, exposed to camera and transformed into a Human Cello by virtue of a pair of f-holes drawn onto my back with a soft black kohl pencil that Alex snatched from my makeup bag. To the side, my own dear cello: a beautiful seventeenth-century instrument enjoying a rare moment of silent repose.
People have derisively referred to the cello as my single defining characteristic. That’s alright. I’ll own it, because I know that without me, the cello is just a wood box, sitting silently in the corner. When someone says “All you do is play the cello,” they are trying to deal a debilitating blow to something essential at the heart of me; however, all they ever really do is prove that they just don’t get it. It’s not the instrument; it’s me — -and that force within me that refuses to be cowed, that will not be silent.
Will people be shocked by this image? Offended? Possibly; probably. But perhaps the next time I am on stage, someone will see and hear something more than “just a cello.”
Sunday, March 29, 2015