Violinist Hugo Ticciati highlights the importance of living in the moment during times of uncertainty
Human beings thrive on feelings of safety and security. As recent events have amply demonstrated, we also crave the surety of knowing what’s coming next: the sense that the future can be shaped with plans, projects and reasoned thinking. Spiritual thinkers in all ages have cautioned against placing too much reliance on predictable outcomes. Robert Burns put the matter beautifully in his poem addressed to a poor mouse whose cosy nest in the field has been turned up by the plough: ‘The best-laid schemes of mice and men | Go oft awry.’
Since the onset of Covid-19, all our little nests have been exposed to the cruel light of uncertainty. Many have experienced great sadness, and everyone has suffered inconveniences, large and small. The experience highlights how much we enjoy hatching schemes that can be nursed to fruition, and how we love finding meaning in our lives by setting objectives and working patiently towards realising them.
Now we must face the fact that our lives are fraught with uncertainty, and the surety of a dependable future has been exposed for what it is: an illusion, because nobody really knows what is coming next. As the sages have always cautioned, our hopeful plans can be cast into disarray from one instant to the next.
Perhaps there is an opportunity here, however, to relinquish the conditioned need to know and to try instead to embrace the fact of not knowing: opening ourselves up to the infinite potentiality, not of wishing and wanting, but of merely being. In this way we might relearn the importance of impermanence, based on the understanding that planned and wished certainties are merely apparent. For the only thing we really can be sure of is the impermanent nature of life! If we allow ourselves to experience this natural flux of continuous change as a playful dance rather than a threat, then the gentle flow of time becomes our closest friend and perhaps our greatest source of comfort and inspiration.
The foundation of that attitude is a special kind of patience. We must learn not to wait like children forcibly suppressing their excitement in anticipation of a coming birthday (though that joy is not to be sniffed at!). Patience without wanting is a surrender to the quiet space of inwardness, where an unprompted tide of impressions, emotions, thoughts and memories rise to consciousness. Resisting the urge to cling onto these sensations, letting them come and go, we gradually descend into the ground of our being and develop a renewed sense of self. We find that we have the space to allow things to happen more freely and spontaneously, without the distractions of the noisy world of activity. Patience and silence join hands, enriching our perceptions so that a moment of unwilled selfhood may emerge.
The state of simply being is surprisingly elusive when you consider that it is the flowing ground of all that we are – the living soil in which we take root and flourish. Consider an ancient tree that stands in a forest, proudly singular, at a certain distance from the other trees around it. Growing sometimes for several hundred years, the tree is a symbol of patience and the glory of self-surrendering intimacy, but it also enjoys a special closeness to its immediate surroundings. Buffeted by storms, scorched by the sun and drenched with rain, over many years the magnificent tree effortlessly substantiates its real presence and self-possession.
This is the starting point for Dobrinka Tabakova’s The Patience of Trees, in which the mesmeric flow of musical sounds invites us to surrender ourselves to the cyclical passing of time with its varied moods. The four movements, ‘Earth’, ‘Water’, ‘Fire’ and ‘Air’, succeed one another in interconnecting ebbs and surges that rise and fall as patterns of impermanence.
The consolations of patience and the power of music are two sides of the same coin, or complementary features of the same landscape. The philosophy of O/Modernt, the organisation that I direct, has its roots in a vibrant dialogue between passionate music-making and the experience of simply being. It is applied, perhaps most especially, in our approach to performing. However much we, as musicians, plan and practise, in the moment of performance we must leave our best-laid schemes behind and surrender ourselves to the moment, becoming more transparent and vulnerable in the process. As performers we journey inwards through silence to the ground of our being, where the spontaneous and liberating activity of ‘musicking’ is born.
For this reason the most generous and thrilling performances are not just about the vibrations that enter our ears. Most importantly, they spring from the ground of our being, and the patient tree again provides a wonderful illustration. Deep within the forest soil lies an unseen fungal network that hums with life as neighbouring trees share water and nutrients, and (as scientists have shown) communicate with each other, sending signals about drought and disease. They are bound together in a network that has brilliantly been called the ‘wood-wide web’. And so, from the connected depths of the soil, the ancient tree reaches up to the sky, joining heaven and earth in a living cycle of photosynthesis, growth and rejuvenation.
For me personally, surrendering to patterns of impermanence in performance is an experience that is both exhilarating and daunting. It reminds me of life’s fragility, but also of the power of art, which enables us to welcome uncertainty with open arms. In performance as in life, therefore, as we hatch our cherished plans, let us not forget to embrace the now. In this way, by not clinging jealously to the unrealised future, we might try to live a wee bit more like Burns’s little fieldmouse, in the flowing present.
The Patience of Trees is at Manchester International Festival on 16 July and available to stream on demand from 17 July. mif.co.uk