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Mark Salzman's "The Soloist"

by John Bloner, Jr.

"For a serious novelist, there are recurring obsessions; repetition is the natural concomitant of having something worthwhile to say, and repeatedly needing to say it."  John Irving

Author Mark Salzman confronts his obsessions in his work, whether he's writing fiction or non-fiction, allowing the reader to not only witness Salzman's, but also to confront and explore one's own thoughts on parental and self-expectations, spirituality, justice and discipline.

Mark Salzman: writer, martial artist, cellist
In his nearly 30-year career, Salzman has produced seven books, both non-fiction and fiction,weaving these themes repeatedly into his stories and essays. His second novel, The Soloist, (published in 1994) is emblematic of his obsessions made manifest through the book's narrator, Reinhardt Sundheimer, a 35-year old music teacher in Los Angeles, whose past has damaged his ability to fully function as an adult. He cannot form relationships, play his cello without a self-diagnosed hearing problem affecting his sense of pitch, and unshackle his identity from his former self as a child prodigy on his instrument.

Salzman writes from experience. He took up the cello at age seven and excelled at it.  At age sixteen, he earned acceptance into Yale based on his musical proficiency. However, two weeks before the start of the school year, he attended a concert by Yo Yo Ma, who performed a piece from Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.  "His playing was so beautiful, so original, so intelligent, so effortless that by the end of the first movement, I knew my cello career was over," Salzman told the New Yorker.  He entered Yale and instead became a Chinese major.

The pleasures of reading The Soloist go beyond plot, in the way that any favorite book may mean more to you than solely witnessing the journey of a character through time. In part, the novel is a love poem to the cello, to its sonorous tone, to Johann Sebastian Bach, who composed the Cello Suites in 1720 and to the Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who, 170 years later, came upon their sheet music and spent the next twelve years practicing their intricate dance and moods before sharing them with the public.

In the novel, Salzman makes distinctions between those who merely play music and those who are able to both play and feel music with their body and spirit.  He writes:

"I know from my own experience that the emotions in music are musical emotions, and develop according to their own rules of chemistry and experience. They resemble and can strongly evoke the emotions we associate with profound life experiences, like sexual love or the death of a parent, but you don't need to have those experiences to 'feel' music properly."

While Reinhardt, the story's narrator, has given up performance by the beginning of the book, he continues his association with the cello by serving as an instructor.  In this role, he meets Kyung-hee, a nine-year-old Korean boy, who is awkward, bullied by his mother (as Reinhardt himself was bullied), but is transported into a higher realm when he draws his bow across the strings and contorts his small hand at the fingerboard.

Upon hearing Kyung-hee play the cello, Reinhardt relates to the reader, "I could tell immediately and beyond any doubt that this boy felt the music. His interpretation was simply too fresh, too original to be explained by imitation. It had to come from some inner source, even though I had the impression that the music came from all around him."

While the Korean boy is not clinically a savant, he is like a special lamp that can only shine when the juice of music flows through him.  Otherwise, he is limp, gape-mouthed, and of little use. 

In this way, he mirrors Reinhardt, whose mother sheltered him--particularly from the opposite sex--as a young man, leaving him unprepared for life beyond the cello and the concert stage. As he tells the reader at the beginning of the book, "I'll be thirty-six years old this spring, which is young for a retired concert soloist but old for a virgin."

One thread of The Soloist follows Reinhardt and Kyung-hee on a quest toward wholeness as human beings, beyond parental pressure, beyond being musical performers, beyond ego and its narrow view of identity, and toward being present in their lives.

Soon after Reinhardt takes the young cellist on as a student, he receives a letter from the Superior Court of Los Angeles, summoning him to jury duty, where he is selected to serve on a murder trial. 

That the defendant in the trial has killed another man is of no dispute. A college dropout, Philip Weber had joined the Los Angeles Zen Foundation, a Buddhist Church, where he beat his Zen master, Kazuo Okakura, to death with the man's oak stick. The trial focuses instead on the question of sanity. Was Weber pushed to a breaking point by by the Zen master?  Did the severe meditation practices at the Foundation contribute to his breakdown?

Reinhardt learns that in the days leading up to the killing, Okakura had given a koan--that is, a riddle--to Weber to reflect upon during his meditation: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!"  Weber takes the koan literally and murders Okakura.

The chapters that deal with the trial, as well as chapters that focus on Reinhardt's youth, give Salzman an opportunity to explore the role of the mentor in building or destroying the student he purports to help. As a young teen, the author found his path to inner strength in kung fu and his mentor in a martial arts expert. He held this man in high regard, but became disillusioned when his mentor choked another student for no other reason, Salzman saw, than the sadistic pleasure of the strong preying upon the weak.

While he continued to practice martial arts, he separated himself from that teacher, a story he tells in the documentary, The Protagonist, directed by his wife, Jessica Yu.

The United States' judicial system is not only a part of a story line in The Soloist, Salzman returns to it again in his non-fiction publication, True Notebooks, an account of his experiences as a writing teacher in Los Angeles' Central Juvenile Hall.   Upon entering the maximum security prison for juvenile offenders, he had expected to find a group of chest-thumping, self-hating young men whose interest in writing would only be to cast odes to the AK-47 assault rifle.  What Salzman found instead were boys who were emotionally younger than their ages.  He characterized them as "desert plants that haven't been watered for years." The process of writing became a "release of an enormous burden they'd been carrying." 

In his article,"Juvenile Justice In America," author Michael Varga writes, "What is hurting America today is the rate of incarceration of children. In the past twenty years, resources have continually been taken away from California's grammar schools, middle schools, and high schools. At the same time, there has been an exponential growth in funding to juvenile detention centers. This is reflective of what America values."

Mark Salzman's story in The Soloist and True Notebooks also point toward the lack of responsibility found in parents to raise and emotionally support the children they have brought into the world. Poet and essayist Robert Bly refers to this behavior as characteristic of a sibling society. In a PBS interview, Bly points out, "In America, the typical time a man spends in conversation with the son or daughter is ten minutes a day. In Russia, the old Russia, it was two hours a day."  

Philip Weber, the man on trial in The Soloist, is characterized as someone who hasn't found terra firma. He was raised by nannies instead of a father, who was regularly away on business, while his mother suffered under chronic mental illness. His teachers paid little attention to him. After Weber failed in college, his father sent him adrift for good. He tried to find his footing in the Unitarian Church, but instead found that its members were more interested in bake sales than in spiritual growth. He tried the Church of Scientology before he arrived at the Los Angeles Zen Foundation and committed his crime.

Weber and Reinhardt are alike in their incomplete maturation. Reinhardt spent his youth on the road from concert hall to concert hall, while his mother reveled in his fame. She was ruthless in ensuring that nothing would separate his attention from practice and performance. As a result, he lacked relationships with children of his own age and his father.

While he reluctantly takes on Kyung-hee as a student, the experience transforms him. He is no longer the boy, seeking his mother's approval, but the grown-up who finds that teaching is much more than being an educator; it is instead the ability to recognize the needs and talents of the student and the boy who inhabits that role. It is about being present for someone rather than living vicariously through them.

While writing this article, I listened to Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello through interpretations by Yo Yo Ma and Pierre Fournier. What is it about the cello that it can evoke sadness and joy within the bowing of its strings? I also read Eric Siblin's first book, The Cello Suites: J.S. Bach, Pablo Casals, and The Search for a Baroque Masterpiece, which the Queen's Quarterly referred to as a "magnificent obsession...The way the doors opened onto other doors in his quest makes Alice's seem one-dimensional by comparison." 

The photos of the young cellist and the prison images used in this article are not from the book, but are displayed here to offer visual support to the text.

In attempt at summary for this article, I am sharing a video by ThePiano Guys as my wish to express the out-of-body experience in reading Salzman's novel, particularly its final paragraphs, which provide a sensation of running downhill when gravity takes hold of your legs and you are no longer in control of your body but are being carried along, as if by great wings.