Symphony Now: Occupy Wall Street, Cello Edition

October 20, 2011

This past Saturday, cellist Matt Haimovitz headed down to Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where the Occupy Wall Street protests against social and economic inequality have been underway since September 17. Once arriving there, he found someone to loan him a 10-gallon plastic bucket, pulled out his 300-year-old Venetian cello and beloved Peccatte bow, sat down on the bucket, and starting playing. As you might expect in the social-media era, the performances ended up getting recorded and uploaded to YouTube, showing Haimovitz surrounded by rapt and chatting bystanders as he performed a Bach sarabande and prelude, as well as his own cello version of Jimi Hendrix’s guitar arrangement of the “Star Spangled Banner.”

The thought of a classical cellist at a sit-in protest might seem surprising, but not to Haimovitz. For one thing, playing in less-formal settings has been a distinguishing aspect of his career. A brief sampling of Haimovitz’s projects during the past decade or so: the 2000 Bach “Listening Room” tour of the solo cello suites, rather than happening in traditional concert hall setting, took him into clubs throughout the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. In 2002, he was the first classical artist to play at CBGB—the New York punk club that was once home to performers like the Ramones, Blondie, and Patti Smith. His most recent recording,, made with pianist Christopher O’Riley, features one CD of new arrangements of works by Stravinsky, Janácek, Martinu, Piazzolla, and Herrmann; the second CD features new versions of songs by Blond Redhead, the Cocteau Twins, and Radiohead, as well as Arcade Fire’s “Empty Room” and John McLaughlin’s “Dance of Maya” and “Lotus on an Irish Spring.”

Photo by Amanda Te 'trault

Photo by Amanda Te ‘trault

A few days after his visit to Occupy Wall Street, SymphonyNOW caught up with Haimovitz (above) by phone from Montreal, where he is on the faculty at McGill University’s Schulich School of Music.

Jennifer Melick: What made you decide to go to Zuccotti Park for the protests? Was it spur-of-the-moment, or had you been thinking about it for a while?

Matt Haimovitz: The thought came into my mind when I read an article in the New York Times, saying that off the record some of the folks who work on Wall Street were saying, “Oh, you know, these are not sophisticated people.” There was a little bit of condescension toward what was going on there. And I thought, let’s go play some Bach there, and it will be very sophisticated! Last weekend was somewhat pivotal for [the protests], because they went global, and they moved to 42nd Street for a few hours, and there were arrests. I told a few people I was going to go down there and play, if they would let me.

On Saturday, everybody was saying, don’t go down there, they’re getting arrested, it’s too dangerous. I thought that was a great time to go down and show solidarity. Their reaction [to me playing there] just confirms that there is a whole range of people involved—some young, some middle-aged, older. And immediately when I took out the cello, before I played a note, extremely sophisticated people were coming to me, knowing what the instrument was, and when I was going to play some Bach, they knew the repertoire. Anywhere in New York City, if I had unpacked my instrument and started playing, especially on Wall Street, people going to work would have completely ignored me, there is no doubt—think about the Josh Bell experiment in the Washington Metro where they just walked by and were busy going to work. When I got to Occupy Wall Street, I went to their little information desk and asked if it was okay if I played, they were delighted—they didn’t want to know who I am, what I do for a living, or anything. It’s so cool that you can do this anywhere.

Melick: Your name meant nothing to them, I guess?

Haimovitz: Nothing! I went to the kitchen, and since I was looking for someplace to sit, I asked to borrow a bucket. And they were like, yeah, take the bucket. Immediately when I took the cello out, people started congregating around me, and when I started playing, gradually more people came. Some were on the way to other things and came to check it out. Others apparently heard it several feet away from where they were stationed. Their ears were open and they seemed very grateful to have some music around. I think appreciating the collective spirit that they’re creating down there—for me it was very powerful to experience it.

Melick: How long did you stay down there?

Haimovitz: An hour or hour and a half. For the first half hour, I wanted to just get a feeling for the place, so I walked around and was amazed by how organized everything was, and had some conversations, talked to people about what they thought would be best, where they thought I should position the playing where it wouldn’t interfere with the flow of what they were trying to do.

“The Bach Sarabande is so full of hope and peace and kind of the spirituality that is just as important as the dramatic images that we get on CNN or in the media, where you see things on fire, or 100,000 people yelling at the same time. Every single one of us is looking for meaning, a sense of being at peace. And Bach’s Sarabande does that better than anything else I can think of.”

Melick: Did you see other musicians or artists performing there?

Haimovitz: One of the demonstrators had a guitar but wasn’t playing it at that moment. I didn’t see anyone else playing when I was there. One of the first impressions I got of the protests was the way they communicate. To get something across to the other side of the park, one guy will yell something out, and then 20 people will repeat what that guy just said, and repeat it … a kind of human amplifier. I didn’t know if, when I was playing, they might break into a demonstration, or what would happen. But it was fairly quiet while I was there.

Melick: Tell me about the selections you played—there was Bach, and also your arrangement of the Jimi Hendrix “Star Spangled Banner.”

Haimovitz: I played a Bach prelude, and then I dove right into the Hendrix. I thought this was the right place for that kind of message! That was all I expected to play, but then I was surprised that after I played the Hendrix, people asked, could you please play some more Bach? So I sat down and played the Sarabande from the third suite—that was what I finished with. Then I had to leave—I actually had a chamber-music concert that afternoon… I missed my rehearsal! Fortunately they were very understanding about that. I finished my day with the Shostakovich Piano Trio, which was nice, after that experience downtown.

Melick: People typically think of rock music, not classical, as the language of protest. I’m curious how you think the arts fits into these ongoing protests.

Haimovitz: Well, there is definitely a tradition within classical of protest—of classical musicians being politically engaged, going back quite far. One that comes to mind is Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. He tore up the dedication page when he sort of fell out with Napoleon. I would say that contemporary composers are incredibly engaged with politics. Lots of pieces have been commissioned especially for September 11 or Hurricane Katrina or other concerns.

At Zuccotti Park, for me the moment that made the most sense, more than the Hendrix, was the Bach Sarabande, because it’s so full of hope and peace and kind of the spirituality that is just as important as the dramatic images that we get on CNN or in the media, where you see things on fire, or 100,000 people yelling at the same time, and the energy and drama and force of that. But what struck me while I was down there was that every single one of us is looking for meaning, looking for a sense of being at peace. And Bach’s Sarabande does that better than anything else I can think of. I wanted to express solidarity through the experience of what they’re inspiring in all of us, and that I think classical music can do very powerfully.

I don’t know, my relationship with the classical tradition … it’s not about easy listening, or music that you can relax to. I really believe the tradition going back is one that engages the sense and the intellect and the heart, and really provokes reaction and stimulates and inspires us in that way. So in that sense I see it as groundbreaking and in the same spirit as what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street.

“There is definitely a tradition within classical of protest—of classical musicians being politically engaged, going back quite far. One that comes to mind is Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony. He tore up the dedication page when he fell out with Napoleon.”



Melick: These are peaceful protests, for the most part. But as a classical performer in the public eye, do you worry at all about backlash or potential negative reaction from the public?

Haimovitz: I guess not. If we lived in the McCarthy era, and I was going to be blacklisted and wouldn’t be invited to play anywhere, I probably would think twice. But I think anyone who is not going to engage me because of that, I don’t want to play for them! I didn’t really think too hard about that. It just felt natural to be down there. I was moved by what I saw, I was inspired by it, and I wanted to contribute in the way that I can contribute. And then of course I have a nice instrument …

Melick: So did you worry about the safety of your cello?

Haimovitz: People were so respectful! They were totally aware that this was a special instrument. One person said, “Oh my God, that’s beautiful! What is that?” So I described it and talked about it. I was a little more worried about my bow, to be honest, because people were walking around—I have a nice Peccatte bow, one of the two top makers of bows, and I love that bow, it took me a lifetime to find it, and I found it two years ago! It’s a beauty. So I didn’t want someone to just walk right into it. But people gave me space.

Yeah, so I took my Gofriller cello and my Peccatte bow, and they survived. People just … there’s a glow about these instruments, and people really respect that. At no point did I feel in danger or worried about it.

J. S. Bach: 6 Suites for Cello Solo

J. S. Bach: 6 Suites for Cello Solo

by Jennifer Melick

View at Symphony Now website.

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