Var. I, II, III

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HarpingOn

For N

As one goes through life, it’s possible to look back and organize the self-mythology not just in terms of successes and accomplishments (and of course, failures), but those experiences which emancipate the psyche from some personal impediment or struggle. This week, an email correspondence with a musician and writer (with whom I’m newly acquainted) constituted such an epiphany, slapping me in the face and reminding me why it is I started a blog several years ago.

The writer in question had written a very personal blogpost that had been important for me at various times and places in my life (for reasons I shan’t reveal). I reached out for no other reason than to tell him so, and in his gracious response, he told be why he’d written the piece. In his words, a sense “fuck it” spurred him to write, as blogs are ideal spaces for some self-involvement and intellectual exhibitionism.

It really got me thinking: I haven’t said “fuck it” about my blog for while. And that’s because I haven’t said it about my life for a while.

So, indeed, fuck it.

Since the departure of a significant mentor from the organ department at Oberlin Conservatory (where I’m still enrolled), I’ve been in an emotional fetal position, as facts about some rather toxic student-teacher relationships in organ lofts keep coming to light, not only in Ohio, but also at another institution where he taught in New England. I’ve blamed myself for having studied with him in the first place, for having defended him when I studied with him, and even more recently for having mixed feelings about the way colleagues have turned the legacy of an abusive teacher into a platform for their own emotional grandstanding and attention seeking because of dissatisfaction with their careers. For me, there is no easy way forward except to move on, and the decision I made to do so rather quietly  – as painful as it was – seemed the only way I would be able to cope.

Don’t get me wrong, I saw my teacher at his worst: at various points I was groped, I was asked to remove my shirt, I was asked to expose my genitals, I was called a faggot, I was offered to be shown nude photos of former students, I had my back poked with his erection through his trousers in my lessons, I was offered money to sleep with a heterosexual student in the department (on three occasions, no less), I was sworn at, I was yelled at, and I was placed under scrutiny not just for my organ playing, but my life as a peron, having my character assassinated behind my back to numerous colleagues and Oberlin faculty.

At the same time, I sat still when he touched me, I told him I was cold when he asked me to take my clothes off, I said I had to go to another lesson when I was asked to take my pants off, I pretended it was his belt buckle on my back, I swore back at him, I yelled back at him, I pretended not to hear him when he called my ex a kike, I derived pleasure when he slammed the door in my face on hearing the news that I’d be going to Juilliard to study the harp, and I was positively giddy to go out and succeed despite his attempts to destroy me and use my drive for his mind games.

But most of all, – and this is very, very important – I didn’t breathe a word to anyone in Oberlin administration, my family or my ex.

That’s right. I played along. I knew what was happening was wrong, and would have ramifications not just for me, but for my colleagues and those I loved. Even when it was more acceptable to talk, I could have spoken out, but I didn’t. I pulled out of talking to the Boston Globe. I declined to participate in the Title IX process. I still refuse to sue Oberlin College. Why? Because for one, I told myself that any or all of these things will have negative ramifications, long term. Knee-jerk reactions can have unintended consequences, because the future is never something to say “fuck it” about. But secondly, I knew that to point a finger at anyone else but myself or my teacher would be to partake in a considerable amount of deflection that I couldn’t live with.

As horrible as he was, I wasn’t going to scapegoat a perv for my own selfishness and shortcomings.

This has come at a price. I’ve spent about 12 months over-practicing, self-isolating, actively suppressing certain things that might test my emotional faculties (such as reading, revisiting museums over and over, or indulging in overpriced coffee) and pushing it a little too hard at the gym (I mean I look great, but I feel like crap). I started seeing a psychiatrist who took me off medication (as it was in fact making everything worse in the first place). I started paying more for therapy than for rent. And in the midst of all this, I’ve been shamed by colleagues for not speaking out about my organ teacher. I’ve been shamed by the same colleagues for not being angrier. And I’ve been shamed because my silence has wrought a cynical assumption that I faced no abuse from my mentor and was somehow unscarred.

On a deeper level, I haven’t been seeing behind musical scores or thinking about composers the way I used to love to do, mirroring the sense in which I wasn’t thinking about the context and background of my own life. My reflex has been to resort to return to everything I had been “taught” to do in my private conservatory-style lessons, such as to play accurately, not to push boundaries and to isolate one’s musicianship from that thing which might ruin it: the outside world. If I’m honest, it was a real setback, as the “fuck it” attitude that had led me to do things like play three weird instruments and start a blog, also gave me the courage to (for better or worse) transcribe the Goldberg Variations for the harp.

Most of all, I’ve been super weirded out by putting up anything on the blog for fear of judgment or scrutiny. I kept fearing that I would reveal something about myself or my life when I talked about music, and that a single histrionic observation or reflection might let someone into my world. That’s because (like the organ) my relationship with writing is a product of my schooling, particularly my time spent at Oberlin. In going through the rigor of academia, you start to internalize the paradigms and frames passed down to you. You can fight with your teachers about it all you like (I did that, a lot), you can compose essays and make presentations proving the uselessness of most music theory curricula (did that too), and even be applauded for it by sympathetic professors and mentors (Steve Plank and Kendall Briggs, I’m looking at you). But it’s still an uphill battle. You can call it intellectual insularity, Luddism, philistinism, whatever you like, but essentially all it boils down to is that you’ve got something to say, but nowhere to say it. No publisher, ISBN number, no lecture theater.

The few times I’ve tried to blog over the last year, I’ve attempted to put distance between myself and my writing. I wanted my life my life and observations on music to somehow read as effortlessly and romantically as Stendhal or Goethe, when in reality my thoughts on music are about as graceful as a horrible episode from Lena Dunham’s Girls. But when you’re in your twenties, that’s precisely what the internet is for, on the proviso that you just say “fuck it” and take advantage of it. In avoiding my blog, I’ve been treating it like it’s precious, worrying about how things would look either in a year’s time or twenty years’ time, without remembering (a) the sheer size of the internet and (b) the ephemerality of any musical or intellectual idea.

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Over and over, I told myself I was going to write about the Goldberg Variations. Every week, I told myself I would start writing about my practicing, the things I was seeing it, etc. But over and over, I couldn’t really get past the Aria. I was fearful of saying too much, or stepping into musicological territory that I wasn’t qualified to talk about, or – God forbid – show an honest opinion. Isolation is powerful. If we let it go too far, it pervades not just our personal interactions, but the way we think about the things we do every day. Without realizing it, we can start putting up barriers where they shouldn’t be, lest we find something that taps into our senses too deeply for comfort.

I believe this is no less true than in the Goldbergs. If you go to any piece of writing about the Goldberg Variations you’re likely to get a lovely analysis of each movement on its own, with considerations of constituent dance forms, counterpoint and those little teeny tiny deviations from the harmonic structure set up in the Aria. This is fine, really. It’s a perfectly respectable way of thinking about the text of Goldbergs and how Bach was a technical genius.

But that’s just not the whole story. Consider that 99.9% of people who enjoy the Goldbergs don’t have the text memorized when they head to a concert. And even if a listener is a music dork or classical musician knows the piece really well, there’s no way for a performance of the Goldbergs to occupy the same time frame as a physical copy of the score. You can open up a score and peruse it, read through it, flip back and forth and have it all there for you at once. Meanwhile, sitting through the performance takes an hour or so. This is all to say that those wonderful analyses we read give us a fantastic idea of how to “play” or “read” but not necessarily how to listen, or to consider what the effect is of listening to the Goldbergs in real time.

While I was in Cambridge to record the Goldbergs, I started to read obsessively when I wasn’t practicing, as if I was literally slipping back into my former self as an undergraduate. The used bookstore around the corner from my room in St. Edward’s Passage had a handy (and cheap) selection of tattered paperbacks, some of which I skimmed, others of which I buried myself into through the drear of caffeine and jetlag. Unsurprisingly, as I was getting to be nostalgic, the books I picked up had either a Cambridge or gay connection of some sort (self-control victory: I stopped myself from picking up Brideshead Revisited for the umpteenth time).

(The following summaries are in run-on sentences for the purpose of appropriate intelligibility. And humor.)

The Illiad (?) Homer – shit goes down as the division between mortals and Gods gets cast in stone in antiquity.

Invitation to a Beheading, (1936) Vladimir Nabokov – Groundhog Day for Russophiles and Tories and there’s no Bill Murray thank God.

Maurice, E.M. Forster (1971) – Cambridge University’s poor man’s Brideshead but with more sex and less popery.

The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (1924) – Everyone dies because of tuberculosis.

Short Stories, Edgar Allan Poe – Everyone dies dramatically because of tuberculosis.

Exquisite Corpse, (1996) Poppy Z. Brite – Everyone dies because ecstasy fuelled Southern necrophiliac and Londoner psychotic cannibal find love in New Orleans in the midst of the AIDS crisis as they share in consuming a local Vietnamese heroin addict from head to toe #loveisloveislove.

Pale Fire, (1961) Vladimir Nabokov – reader is forced to sort through a bad poem (front of  book) with commentary by a murderous bipolar academic (back of book) more time is spent page-flipping than actually reading.

Cassandra (1984) Christa Wolf – Cassandra of Troy spews forth feminist stream of     consciousness about sexual trauma, gendered alienation, ethnic tensions at conclusion of the  Trojan Wars.

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 12.42.28 AM.pngIt was about the time that I came back round to Nabokov that I started laying down tracks for the recording. Perhaps the most conceptual of Nabokov’s workds, the reader is introduced to a 999 line poem by a slightly deranged aristocratic expat from a far-off nation (Zembla) ravaged by revolution. The poem’s author, however, is dead, thus leaving introducer cum commentator in the sole position of authority on how a poem composed on index cards ought to be read. As the poem is void of indices or reference numbers, one is forced to flip endlessly back and forth from commentary to poem, without any guarantees that the commentary will be of any insight into the poem at all. Indeed, Pale Fire isn’t about “reading” either the commentary or the poem, but the act of piecing the two together to decide (1) who murdered the author, (2) if the author ever existed, (3) where Nabokov is talking about himself or (4) where Nabokov is talking about his fictitious characters.

Back in King’s College Chapel, the act of repeating the Aria over and over during the sound check ushered in a bizarre memory trip that I took with me for the rest of the week. In practicing the variations the next morning, I felt as if I was living Peter Williams’ analyses of the Goldbergs in which every variation is related back to the structure and content of the opening Aria. The thought processes thereafter are not unsurprising: “Ooh this chord is different here than it was in the beginning, make sure to bring that out.” “That inner voice is mucho sexy, because you can hear it in the soprano in the Aria, but now it’s in alto and that’s cool and everyone should be made as aware of it as much as possible.” And of course, I would get out my iPhone and record myself paying attention to all these details like a good “performative musicologist,” and realize that my playing now had all the subtlety and poise of a rhinoceros passing a kidney stone the size of a DVD player. It wasn’t musical constipation so much as a hostage situation, as if I was trying force the listener to hear everything that I could see.

There’s an overwhelming temptation to treat the Goldbergs not just like a book, but a testament to mnemonic association. We get so fixated on the idea that the variations constitute individual and mutually isolated afterthoughts, that we train our minds to try and flip back and forth in our minds the way one would in reading Nabokov. Of course, that if one part of the story, as Bach and Nabokov both had their reputations for self-conscious intellectual naughtiness (I mean what could possibly be funnier than exasperating someone dumber than you, right?). The Goldbergs can exhaust your sensibilities if you let them, as your faculties can get taxed again and again as you struggle to remember how each variation is a pearl.

Of course, when I sat down to record, this all fell apart. More time was spent dealing with logistical issues of the fact that the Goldbergs were not in fact written for the harp. “Let’s get rid of that buzz, shall we?” “Let’s see if we can eliminate that creak in the bench.” “Is there any way to avoid that pedal noise?”At various points I found myself holding the harp with just my right shoulder, controlling all my pedaling with my knees and not my ankles (to make the action of changing sharps and flats as slow as possible), and changing all my lovely French technique and fingerings to iron out those eccentricities which I had so painstakingly cultivated. The notion of creating some lasting “permanent” interpretation of the Goldbergs had somewhat gone out the window, as the conditions of the recording session started to bear down. (In other words, a large, difficult work on a large, difficult instrument in a large difficult, room… is a large, difficult pain in the ass.)

Screen Shot 2019-10-22 at 12.44.01 AM.pngAs the sessions went on, I buried myself in Christa Wolf’s Cassandra, which I was inspired to read after listening to composer Michael Jarrell’s work of the same name. Cassandra of Troy’s memories of the war and her experiences in the palace of Agamemnon are scattered and chaotic. While one can try to relate her story either to Homer or Aeschylus, the incessance of the prose begs one to stay in the moment, relishing the kaleidoscope of ideas as they shift from one to the next. One minute, she’s remembering how Apollo spat in her mouth to give her the ability to prophesy, then on to she’s describing the water beneath a ship, and then further commenting on the consistency of wine drunk by the men who have enslaved her. Seamlessly jumping across time and space, Wolf’s genius in writing is the use of ideas like “liquid” to talk describe real events and foster metaphors for Cassandra’s emotional alienation from her plight.

In recording the variations, one by one, I had to give excerpts from the preceding and subsequent movements to provide adequate material for the producer for editing, as well as to provide tuning checks and tempo signposts. I think it was here that my view of the Goldbergs started to shift. For instance in moving from the Aria and into the next three variations, the subtle and most continuous connective tissue between them wasn’t a harmonic structure, but a cell of three notes.

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The ornament on the third beat of the Aria is one of the most famous in Western music. It places an enormous dissonance on a weak beat of a bar (an A over a G Major chord), and proceeds resolves it upwards briefly to a B, before returning back to the A which is now not a dissonance but part of a D major chord. That ornament apart from propelling the motion forward from the very first notes of the Goldbergs is pervasive throughout the entire Aria, providing space for all that languid harpsichord-y expressiveness that often sounds like the performer intentionally has no rhythm.

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But it doesn’t stop there. Just after the Aria ends, Variation 1 picks it up and uses it as a rhythmic engine. Not only that, but the left hand incorporates it as implying imitation and counterpoint – that is, providing the essence of two voices – with a single line. You can hear the two hands passing back and forth like an argument or conversation, providing the ears with something to latch onto.

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Go to Variation 2, and things get more interesting. The same rhythmic cell is used in the left hand, but slowed down by half, while the original quick ornament is used in the right hand to change that sacrosanct G Major chord into a spicy E minor. It’s crazy: the ornament has literally bifurcated itself, bringing the listener into two different temporal landscapes at once.Screen Shot 2019-10-21 at 5.25.39 PM.png

Variation 3: a canon, whereby two voices copy each other exactly, but at different pitch levels. The melody – you guessed it – uses the same ornament, repeating itself right-side up and upside-down as if there’s an internal canon or imitation scheme going (not dissimilar to the left hand from variation 1). In listening, one can hear the repetition one on another like one of Escher’s staircases, weaving in and out of each other, using repetitive right angles to obfuscate a tangible sense of space or proportion.

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For me, I think this is why the Goldberg Variations make people bananas, as Bach engages both mnemonic and short-memory levels to create hourlong super structures in the mind, while engaging the ears in real time. Unlike a lot of music of the Baroque, and even some of Bach’s own music, the Goldbergs really show themselves in their intended medium for live performance and audiation, rather than textual study.

Of course, the highly technical language I’m using to describe these phenomena is possible due to my access to the score, but that doesn’t mean it’s not identifiable without it. One of the best things about Bach is the ability for beauty to be revealed without knowing precisely “how” he’s doing it. Though Bach may be driving the bus, the listener gets to sit inside for the ride rather than watch it drive by. To go along and really enjoy what Bach might be offering, it requires to you sit back and relish an experience in real time, and sometimes not to dwell in the past. Indeed, over-compartmentalization of anything can lead to a fragmented experience.

I’ve decided to let go, and accept that the last year with the Goldbergs has been part of a healing process. On a musical level, the flow and continuity of the work is too incredible to leave to one side. And, in my own life, I’ve grown tired of pretending that there are parts of my life that aren’t there, and haven’t shaped the way I look at a piece of music. I’ve decided to start reading again, getting that cup coffee, and taking the space to face the music as it hits me. I’ve decided to say “fuck it.”

Aria

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HarpingOn

Upon arriving at King’s, the first person to greet me at the front gate was none other than my old director of studies, Dr. Michael Sonenscher, an eminent historian of political thought and ideas. His quiet and pleasant demeanor hadn’t changed since the afternoons of my final year at Cambridge, in which I listened with some degree of awe as he would spout prodigious and encyclopedic knowledge of Hegel, Rousseau and Voltaire in his rooms, just a stone’s throw from the Cam. It was all the more fitting that I should run into him, for on the bus from Heathrow, I had been wading through one of his final literary recommendations to me before my final exams in 2013.

When The World Spoke French (New York Review Books Classics) By Marc FumaroliI’m sure reading Marc Fumaroli’s When the World Spoke French in English translation qualifies as a cognitive dissonance, if not a minor crime against authenticity. However, the perspective on the history of the French language embedded in the book is no less insightful. In its pages sits an account of the sustained primacy of the French language from the mid-seventeenth century well into the eighteenth, right up to the French Revolution. As France and Europe gradually liberalized from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) to the Wars of Spanish Succession (1701-1714), so too did the French language, shedding pretenses of mere authority and gaining status as a tool of self-expression, articulation, even linguistic freedom (don’t worry, having failed a French class myself at Oberlin, I too am skeptical of any notion of flexibility in French). In practical terms, French, having once been a language reserved for official business, soon became the choice language for conversation and socialization. Most famously, the court of Frederick the Great only operated in French, influencing tastes in music, art and philosophy thereby. But even as early as 1687, German writer Christian Thomasius noted  that “French clothes, French food, French furniture, French customs, French sins, French illnesses are generally in vogue.”

In the end, Fumaroli’s project takes readers through a series of historical vignettes to paint a picture of 18th-Cenutry European society, while simultaneously pinpointing the origins of its visage: French’s exigency of style. From the era of Greek and Latin as lingua franca to the primacy of Italian in the Republic of Letters, and even now with the primacy of technocratic English in the 21st Century, Europe has seen a series of phenomena whereby languages lay claim to universality (and often with great success, on a practical level). Where Enlightenment-era French differs from these languages was the insistence on exactitude and uniformity, despite the difference in ideas that might be espoused therewith. (After all, the French spoken by the aristocrats was spoken by Robespierre, who like his victims powdered his wig and bore an impeccable profile.)

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Elsewhere in my bag was a copy of The Illiad, another volume discussed in history seminars, though it itself does not constitute a formal work of “history.” Unlike our modern storytellers and thinkers, Homer appears absolutely and totally unconcerned with leading you along or telling you where things stand in his labyrinthine plot of interactions between mortals and the Olympian heroes.

As anyone who survived either AP literature or an A-level in Classics will tell you, there’s a great rush when you open up the first page of Homer’s magnum opus:

          Rage – Goddess, sing the Rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
          murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
          hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
          great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
          feasts for dogs and birds,
          and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
          Begin, Muse with the two first broke and clashed,
          Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

But of course it’s not long before you’re lost. Even if you’ve studied the work twice before, made it through a 61-page introduction or memorized the geography of Greece, the Peloponnese and Asia Minor, you’re still likely to be fuzzy about who Peleus is. Or what Achilles is doing there (the ankle guy, right?). Or Agamemnon (DON’T turn on Strauss). Or who the Achaeans are (OK, I may or may not have gotten distracted and watched Christina Goerke for an hour or so. Oops.)

But supposing you want to get organized, it’s necessary figure out who all these people are, and what they are doing same place at the same time, some ten years before the Trojan War’s conclusion. And yet, even with a paperback copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology in hand, a critical commentary and nine Wikipedia pages open in your browser, it’s still hard to piece together why the hell they are doing what they are doing.

As the Argives and the Achaeans are getting their asses handed to them, Achilles calls upon his mother, Thetis, to bargain with Zeus on his behalf. It’s an interesting plot twist, as Thetis is female and thus far we’ve been told that the place of women is merely as interchangeable pawns (for instance when it’s apparent that Chryseis, the object of Agamemnon’s affections, has to be removed from his custody, the stand-in is Briseis, and unrelated woman but whose name intentionally rhymes). What does Thetis possess that mortal women cannot? Or even Hera, Zeus’ sister-wife?

(Dig, dig, dig.)

Thetis is apparently not just any mere nymph but the female who freed Zeus when Hera and Minerva imprisoned him. Zeus is indebted to her, in this respect, having retained his autonomy on her watch. But she’s also apparently the only woman to reject Zeus’ sexual advances, at once angering him but also protecting him from further catastrophe. In raping the goddess Metis, he wrought Minerva, who fulfilled the first prophecy that his first child would rise up and overrule him as would his second. Hence in denying Zeus’ lust, Thetis became a protector of the Olympian status quo, preventing another uprising the likes of which she rescued Zeus from in Minerva’s rebellion.

Homer’s demands on the reader are high, as thousands of years later we have to trudge through Hesiod, Aeschylus and a handful of other sources to divine what the motives might be in the interactions between Gods and men. What we don’t like to think about is that the demands Homer made on readers and listeners were just as high in his own time, as we’ve no evidence of the total standardization of the Olympian origin myths.

Image result for marriage of cadmus and harmonyOnce again, I turn to another of Dr. Sonenscher’s recommended readings. In The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso points out that the Homeric account of the Olympians is “perfect” as it shows the definitive lines over and over again between where the will of man ends and the interference of the divine begins. But those things which are perfect and circular in logical form necessitate a breakthrough for some emotional impact to be divined. Indeed, the more you read, the more the mitigating zones of inquiry aren’t set up between Achilles and Thetis, or Thetis and Zeus, but rather between you and Homer, as you desperately try to figure out each and every “why” and infer elements of drama on the lives of the Olympians.

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This summer, I told myself I that I was not only going to write, but write a lot about the Goldbergs, as chasm remains open between the technical demands of Bach’s giant variations and the listener’s expectations for something more. Too often, the work can only be seen for its academic and mechanical elements, from canons and fughettas to movements laden with virtuosic chromaticism or excessive rhythmic drive. That’s all well and good, but the most obvious elements aren’t always the key to understanding “why” these pieces get under our skin, become ear-worms or beckon performers to pour over the score again and again.

Homer drops readers into the middle of the Trojan War, and Bach wastes no time in stranding the modern listener in the cosmopolis of musical style in the eighteenth century. In opening up our scores and turning to the Aria, we see a page of music that is at once coherent, and simultaneously baffling. Take the title for instance. We’re told it’s an “Aria,” but in no way does it resemble the da capo form we know and love from a baroque opera. There is no return to the opening theme, but merely has an A and a B section. And what of these A and B sections? They are different in affect, the first being melancholic, while the second impassioned and then emboldened, having passed through e-minor to make it back home to G major. And yet their journeys are the same in length, making up 16 bars in each section, though the second half invariaImage result for frescobaldi la monicably feels longer or more constitutionally dense than it’s preceding counterpart. In this sense, the length of the sections resemble more an Italian song form or chord progression, in the 17th Century manner of Frescobaldi and his contemporaries.

And yet the ornamentation speaks French, though the message is derived from Italian. Ports de voix, mordents and tremblements appear one after the other, comprising a minuet for the listener to wander through as if in an afternoon at court in Versailles. The accompaniment too, through providing a rhythmic steadiness does little more than build triads in the style brisée, as if accompanying the right hand on a lute.  Bach’s game here is subtle. Because the Goldbergs are called “Aria with Variations” and not “Variations upon an Aria,” Bach sets the scene for a Francophile smorgasbord that never manifests. (Peter Williams points out that even the first four bars can be considered a miniature joke, as they comprise the harmonic scheme necessary for a slow Chaconne, a dance which is almost always reserved for the end of a French dance suite.) As there is no direct reference to the filigree anywhere in the variations, the Aria is not in fact a theme at all, but merely a considered presentation of the work’s repetitive harmonic scheme.

So why all the detail and complexity, just to present a series of harmonies? Why does Bach appeal to us in French?

“French grammar, the French lexicon, whose relative poverty Voltaire was not afraid to mock, French versification, poetry, the memoirs of occasion, the genres in which our language excelled–all this difficult apprenticeship had the meaning of an initiation to an exceptional fashion of being free and natural with others and with oneself. It was altogether different from communicating. It was entering ‘into company.’” (Marc Fumaroli, When the World Spoke French)

But like Homer, Bach isn’t real big on telling us how the ornaments should be played, for just as Homer doesn’t hand us a theogony, Bach doesn’t hand us a French textbook. Herein lies the irony that in order to understand those things which make this Aria perfect and whole, we must deconstruct it first and break the unbreakable circle. From an earlier source, we do have Bach’s account of how his ornaments ought to be played. In his table are a smattering of French, German and Italian terms, reflecting not Bach’s status as a polyglot so much as the state of European music as being composite of a host of geographically identifiable styles.

And yet Bach’s Aria is hummable and immediately memorable in a way that the French Suites or his other French inspired works aren’t. The aspect that makes it so incredibly catchy is the lack of nebulous or ambiguous affect in the melody. For bars and bars on end, every note is seemingly in perfect concord with the harmony or violently dissonant, yearning for a resolution. What’s more is that there are a lot of them. Just in the first four bars there are six such instances of these fleeting extreme dissonance slide into their consonant counterparts.

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The big question is of course is what to do with these clashes when we identify them. Do we iron them out immediately, or bask in each an every one of them? Do we set up organized hierarchies, or let the moment move us, accepting that our reasonable faculties are subject to forces of the ephemeral as much as they are to our long memories of performances past. Indeed, for all the ornament table tells us about the order of notes in an ornament, we know not how they are played (pace, volume, affect, etc.).

“Of all natural gifts, goût [“taste”] is the one that makes itself most felt and that is the hardest to explain. It would not be what it is if it could be defined, for it judges objects that the judgment can no longer weigh and, if I dare draw such a simile, is the reading glasses of reason. Among melodies, some songs are more agreeable than others, although all are equally well modulated. In harmony, some things impress, others do not, although all are equally correct. Weaving the pieces together is a fine art that involves using some pieces to make the others stand out, that involves something more refined than the law of contrasts. (Rousseau, Dictionary of Music, 1768)

While treatises innumerable speak of “taste” and “discretion,” or of their utility in times of “necessity,” Bach’s son Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach (employed in the Court of Frederick the Great) paints ornamentation with a broader brush

 It is not likely that anybody could question the necessity of ornaments. They are found everywhere in music, and are not only useful, but indispensable. They connect the notes; they give them life. They emphasise them, and besides giving accent and meaning they render them grateful; they illustrate the sentiments, be they sad or merry, and take an important part in the general effect. They give to the player an opportunity to show off his technical skill and powers of expression. A mediocre composition can be made attractive by their aid, and the best melody without them may seem obscure and meaningless. (C.P.E. Bach, An Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments, 1753)

 “Technical skill” and “powers of expression” stand out in this paragraph, for in the end all the details really are up to us to sort out on our own. For all the time we can spend pouring over ornament tables, French grammar books or different accounts of the Olympians’ struggles, the only truth that be derived is that which we come to individually. The Aria is not beautiful because of the ornaments alone, but those ornaments sound different under every set of fingers and in every set of ears.

 

The Goldblogs: An Introduction

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MilanVia dell’Unione.

When making small talk, the following guidelines can be useful:

(1) Not everyone shares your passions,
(2) “T.M.I.” is a real and present danger.

A few weeks back, a fellow writer recounted a brief stint spent working as a stripper at a bar in rural New Zealand. While initially fascinating, it wasn’t long before the intricate details of sociological details of gender and economics (i.e. male clients’ preferences and sheep-farming) in the island nations failed to hold my attention. Despite my best efforts to listen, I soon began contemplating what the country’s sheep-to-stripper ratio might be. (Despite some attempts to Google it, I have yet to find out.)

But Karma got her revenge. At a wedding celebration last week, I started to tell a friend about how the second variation of the Goldberg Variations sounds like a canon (even though it isn’t at all), while the canon sounds like a florid variation with no seeming contrapuntal discipline. My ten-minute lecture was going well until I bothered to look up and into my companion’s eyes. Present were the tell-tale signs of a furrowed brow, a vacant smile and vigorous affirmative nods, politely letting me know that I should power the conversation down sooner rather than later. This was no longer chit-chat, but a hostage situation.

And yet I kept talking and I couldn’t stop, as the Goldbergs have started to eat up my entire brain space as well as my capacity for self-awareness, apparently. After all, each of us can easily fantasize that the things we love are intelligible and appealing to those closest to us (in all fairness, Kiwi strippers probably have a wider appeal than the Goldbergs in wider culture). But fantasies of this kind should not be dismissed outright. Rather what should be borne in mind is that the details we perceive as passionate and invested experts might only exist on the conceptual (that is, imperceptible) level for our friends. The trick is not just to tell your friends and colleagues about it and expect them to catch up, but to get them to find the same enthusiasm that you yourself have found.

This has all weighed on my mind as I embark on my third journey with the Goldbergs, this time at the harp bench (having previously played the work on the piano and the harpsichord). As I’ve vascilated between ideas about transcription and as well as faithful adaptation, new questions have arisen in my mind as to what the Goldbergs really “are” and what they can ultimately communicate. After all, one of harp’s limitations is that the work cannot be played at the break-neck tempos normally attempted by pianists. But on the other hand, it can get all the pluckiness of a harpsichord while having the ability to add dynamics as one would on the piano.

With this in mind, matters of architecture and overall shape require a bit of extra thought. It’s become the fad to perform the Goldbergs with a sense of narrative for the benefit of the listener, though the internal form of the work contains conscious and unconscious patterns of form and precedence. We often like to think that Bach has somehow poured all of himself into 31 miniatures, leaving us mere mortals behind not so much with an intellectual exercise or work of art, but a strange autobiographical tombeau composed over a decade before the composer’s death.

But with the revival of period instruments and the growth of musicological inquiry, such ideas have been called into question. For me, no writer has ever summed up the literary and performative tensions inherent in the Goldbergs better than the great scholar Peter Williams.

“One can speak of two shapes for the Goldbergs, a perceptual and a conceptual. Perceptually, the movements proceed by way of great contrast and change, reach several kinds of semi-climax en route, build a crescendo of excitement towards the end, and then die away as the Aria returns and eventually closes the work. Conceptually, however, there is a more static pattern, and one neither easily perceptible nor strictly transient, since it is always there on paper to be grasped. The thirty variations are built up from a series of threes which do not, of themselves, either create or remove tension: some are harder to play than others, but the gentlest might be some of the most intricate from a contrapuntal point of view.”

Williams succinctly (and politely) challenged the mode of understanding which has held the Goldbergs hostage for decades, by separating what’s in the score from what pianists are told they “ought” to play. The only problem perhaps is the manner in which he saw these elements as being mutually exclusive.

“Players could reflect either shape, though hardly both, and the archform might be closer to what such a composer, in the days before standard public recitals, was looking for as an ideal.”

It’s true that the gap between the text and the performance mirrors the gap between the listener and the performer, as the Goldbergs do not constitute some abstract or theoretical tome but are in fact intended for artful execution in real time. But I find myself pondering what it would look like to widen the dialogical space between the listener and the work itself. How might listeners be emboldened to hear those things which are genuinely perceptible without a score, though perhaps require some wider musical context?

For instance, each of the 30 variations contains a specific form or genre from the Baroque (canons, fugues, overtures, passpieds, etc.). But if we compare the Goldbergs to Bach’s suites or partitas, there are forms which are notably absent: dances. There is no allemande, no courante, no gavotte and no bourée (though there is a gigue and a minuet). This is because the theme upon which the Goldbergs is built prohibits the use of of forms that do not begin on the first beat of a bar.

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(Dance movements from French Suite no. 6, BWV 817)

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The first four varations of the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Indeed, if one looks at Bach’s Aria from the Goldberg Variations does not offer a harmonic tabula rasa upon which to somehow write out his life in music. The Aria instead provides a rhythmic with a pair of rhythmic fisticuffs to work with, as each and every section of the Aria begins on the strong beat of a bar.

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But what seems an abstract rhythmic aspect of the work is the very element which renders the work’s feeling of hypnosis: no movement starts with some breath or lead-in to the start. Each and every movement begins on the strong downbeat, calmly and quietly unambiguous, like an essay without a single gerund or conditional clause. In this way, listening to the Goldbergs is not about information overload or some sort of sensory fantasia, but rather about the inability to exist in any moment but the present.

The shining exception to the rule is the final Variation (no. 30), given the title Quodiblet by Bach. This one movement, signaling the end of the work, breaks the flow by inserting direct quotations from folksongs. It is here that we do see see a glimpse of Bach’s personal life coming to the fore, though not in a somber manner. Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, once explained the Quodiblet thusly as a reference to Bach family reunions:

“As soon as they were assembled a chorale was first struck up. From this devout beginning they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast. That is, they then sang popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment… This kind of improvised harmonizing they called a Quodlibet, and not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.”

Bach makes no grand philosophical statement with the Quodlibet, but getting people to snap out of it with two rather inane tunes with seemingly contradicting lyrics: Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west, ruck her, ruck her (“I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein’ Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”). Bach breaks the flow not with a grand statement, but with a musical joke. And yet, consdering the pious (translation: slow) manner in which the Quodiblet is often played, one would never get the sense that Bach had a sense of humor, or intended to jolt the Goldberg-flow-zone to a grinding halt. Again, the Quodiblet’s joke is not aurally imperceptible, but both performer and listener have to know to expose it and look out for it.

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But to do so would be to break with a fairly rigid tradition which tends to see the Goldbergs with the arc described by Williams: they supposedly build up to Variation 16, die away to 25, and rev up again towards variation 29, as if there’s an internal tale of life, death and resurrection (in 30 movements which bear staggering similitude in harmony and rhythm, no less). To break with tradition would also to be to accept some slower tempi and possibly the idea that this is not the marathon race Glen Gould envisioned (such were his tempi that he would soak his arms in hot water for up to twenty minutes before a performance in order to relax his muscles and avoid injury). To break with tradition would be to accept that the piece isn’t about challenging the pianist, harpsichordist or any other performer. It’s about challenging the listener while artfully guiding them along.

Sat with my score and a pencil, cheap Italian espresso is helping me to keep digging into Bach’s marvelous little varaitions as I battle some jetlag. There are there are days in which I wonder if transcribing the Goldbergs is a fool’s errand considering its historical association with the piano and the harpsichord. But as I settle into the mind-altering trance of the Bach’s quiet insistence in each and every variation, it’s my own thought processes that stick with me rather than the work itself. I can’t help but think this to be intentional on Bach’s part, having taken the time to search out forms and genres which transport the listener into their own thoughts. For me, this the essence of universality of the Goldbergs, that as much as they are a wonder to witness on the page, to listen to them is to take a look inside yourself. Music as much as it has been written for enjoyment, continues in its function as a mediator for human sensibilities. How much more universal might the Goldbergs be if they were recognized as pieces to foster introspection on behalf of the listener, rather than virtuosity at the behest of a pianist?

 

Shanghai, Day 1: Schmelzer

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Utter helplessness sets in when one is faced with the inability to read or verbally communicate. While Western expat cafes along Yongkang Road are all staffed by helpful and friendly Anglophones, upon stepping out, my attempts to order food are reduced to pointing, smiling and confessing on no uncertain terms that I am in this situations, totally ignorant. Indeed after one day in Shanghai, I’ve learned to recognize precisely four characters in Chinese (I think): I can read now read prices in yuan (元), and can identify chicken (鸡), fish (鱼) and tea (茶) on a menu. (Next step, road signs and/or directions to the metro.)

In talking with other members of the Shanghai Camerata, I learned that Chinese takes an exceedingly long time to learn, simply due to the fact that the innumerable characters take years to memorize. And even then, once they are memorized, linking them with appropriate context and using them to express ideas from another language takes even more time and experience. Diligence is necessary, of course, but also patience and openness to the potential for error.

The sense of unfamiliarity with a new language is a relatively common phenomenon when delving into new genres of music either. While one can perhaps enjoy the aesthetic sensation when listening, the act of performance can demand memorization of different modes of communication. One learns harmonic conventions, rhythmic grooves and the overall rhetoric which takes lumps of sonic material and turns it into music.

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British novelist Leslie Poles Hartley began his 1953 novel The Go-Between with the famed words “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” In this intricate tale of an adolescent’s attempts to navigate the significations and affectations of the upper class, the moral of the tale is that one’s sincerity to connect with fellow humans is only as their ability to communicate and listen. By the end of the tale, the book’s protagonist has been through so many failures of communication that he is unable to process any information except facts alone, effectively isolating him from ever forming deep relationships.

Isolation and communication can be problems in Baroque music, as performers are confronted with rows and rows of notes in succession with few complimentary symbols or directions indicating volume or speed. And yet, we know this music ought to be interpreted somehow, as it’s unlikely that a work of music is devoid of either of internal logic or interpretive license. As such, in the historical performance, there’s an element of translation that has to take place, looking at groups of notes on a page to find out what their grammatical meaning might be.

Fortunately for us, some musicians of the past not only wrote their ideas down but compiled them into dictionaries and other lexicographical volumes. For instance, one can easily learn from Johann Gottfried Walther’s Musikalisches Lexicon that rhythmic repetition (anaphora) serves to explicate, demonstrate or augment the meaning of an idea.

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The anaphora (from αναφέρωoccurs when a phrase is frequently repeated in a composition for greater emphasis. (Musikalisches Lexicon, 1732)

Johan Adolph Scheibe, another eminent musical lexicographer and composer when even further.

It is important that repetition not be ignored, but differentiated at every opportunity through well devised neighboring or intervening passages. (Critischer Musicus, 1737-1740).

But other figures and symbols are more ambiguous. In Schmelzer’s Sonata Quarta for Violin and Continuo, violinist Ruiqi Ren and I came across a brief section dominated bombus, which occurs when a note is repeated four times in a row in relatively quick succession.

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At first such a figure would appear to carry some militaristic or showy affekt. But Walther says something sheds light on the way a figure or a phrase might change over time:

The bombus formerly signified an artful movement of the hands which resulted in beelike humming. Nowadays, the figure merely indicates nothing more than a trillo. (Musikalisches Lexicon)

From here, one can set off on any number of roads of inquiry. One might start by asking how it was that bees were perceived in Walther’s time a place. Was the sound of a swarm of bees something irritating? Ominous? Soothing? Or is it perhaps based in one’s own perception of what a bee represents?

Past a certain point, one can fail to differentiate forests from trees (or indeed the metaphysics of a bee’s existence from four bars in a short piece of music). But in learning any new language, one learns to determine context after learning snippets of vocabulary. Why should we assume that a bombus ought to be aggressive, when we can learn that the opposite might be the case? It’s the act of questioning and trying things out that help internalize a new language.

As I’ve learned in the last few days, it is of course not enough to learn single words but to take a look what’s around it. My first meal in Shanghai, I ordered a dish with fish (鱼) but failed to look at the character beforehand (鲶). I ended up ordering catfish (鲶鱼, which I generally despise) but which is not uncommon in Cantonese cuisine (and yes, I ended up at a Cantonese restaurant my first night in Shanghai without realizing it). But such is the nature of trial and error. Whether it’s food, language or music, one need not be scared to try something new.

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Ovid

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Only in Manhattan does one celebrate achievements such as successfully spreading possessions across four small pieces of real estate (two offices, one storage unit and one apartment), rather than simply having a single piece of real estate that can fit everything you own. Over the last few weeks, my partner and I have undertaken the task of consolidating the libraries of two bibliophiles. After building countless cardboard boxes, filling them to maximum capacity and moving them out, we have started to see the intended result: more space in our apartment. Richard oversaw the removal of 16 boxes of LP’s from our apartment into storage, while I reorganized some 400 books recently moved into my new office.

It’s no secret that spatial economy is a nuisance, as the contents of vast quantities of literature are in no want of space in the human mind. After all, for many reading is as valuable as practical experience, as volumes of detailed chronologies or dry analyses form the bases of entire worldviews and perspectives. The permanence of paper offers the opportunity for continued experience with each and every read, potentially altering the context for how one might view the world. Just as we change, the words we read change with us to a degree.

Hence, what one chooses to keep nearby in a library can be telling about one’s values or even their stage in life. Richard’s copy of Hesiod’s Theogony sits one stretch of an arm away from our couch, wedged between Homer and Pindar, while Ovid’s Metamorphoses rests between Thucydides and Plato in my office. For me these volumes remain insightful into human nature, but more practically, because of their sustained relevance over the centuries, they can act as cultural dictionaries when encountering an obscure reference in painting or a piece of a music.

                              

Several weeks ago, I interrupted the packing flow to find my copy of Metamorphoses before I moved it into my new office. It was needed it in order to look up what Ovid might have to say about the figure Astraea, who came up in a rehearsal of a previously unperformed oratorio by Antonio Giannettini (1648-1721). Being the only reference of its type in Giannettini’s account of the life of Moses, La creatione de’ magistrati di Mosè, it was safe to assume that the reference was not without significance.

At first, it seemed that Ovid had little to nothing to offer on Astraea, only offering that she was the last of the immortals sent to live among men in the Golden Age, departing at the end of the Bronze Age and the start of the Iron Age.

Piety was dead, and virgin Astraea, last of all the immortals to depart, herself abandoned the blood-drenched earth. The harsh iron age was last. Immediately every kind of wickedness erupted into this age of baser natures: truth, shame and honour vanished; in their place were fraud, deceit, and trickery, violence and pernicious desires. And now harmful iron appeared, and gold more harmful than iron. War came, whose struggles employ both, waving clashing arms with bloodstained hands. They lived on plunder: friend was not safe with friend, relative with relative, kindness was rare between brothers. Husbands longed for the death of their wives, wives for the death of their husbands. Murderous stepmothers mixed deadly aconite, and sons inquired into their father’s years before their time. (Ovid, Metamorphoses I)

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The Departure of Astraea, Hendrick Goltzius (Haarlem, 1589)

From this reference alone, it was hard to figure out what exactly Astraea’s place might be in Giannettini’s oratorio. But as I perused the libretto, a few other things stood out. First, though the oratorio is supposed to be about Moses, roughly half the arias are sung by his father-in-law Jethro, whose role in Moses’ life receives little mention beyond the 18th chapter of the Book of Exodus. Second, the oratorio’s sequence of events does not include any of the major milestones we would usually associate with Moses, such as the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, or the receipt of the Law on Mount Sinai. Rather, Giannettini’s oratorio goes into great detail about a period of Moses’ life after the flight from Egypt and before the giving of the law, thus focusing on the uncomfortable decisions which Moses had to make about his leadership of the Hebrews, lest he become a tyrant.

If one reads carefully into the book of Exodus, it’s apparent that Moses wasn’t terribly popular with the Hebrews once he got them into the desert. In Exodus 15-17, it’s said that food and water were scarce, invading tribes wrought havoc, and as of yet, there was no central law or governance apart from the leadership of Moses himself. For a people supposedly defined by their relationship with their God, it would appear they had fallen under a personal dictatorship led by Moses.

The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt. In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.” (Exodus 16:1-3)

From the oratorio’s outset, Moses tells his wife and all who would listen that he has been entrusted with Astraea’s scales in order to divine the fate of his people, and that he perhaps fears the loss of control. But later Jethro warns Moses that if he does not exercise good judgment but proves himself a tyrant, Astraea will have her vengeance:

            But beware, if greedy instinct prevails in a Minister:
            Astrea shall bewail her laws by tyrant’s interests twisted,
            her perfect balances turned to basest use—
            for weighing gold, instead of works;
            she’ll see her sword with ruined temper,
            and with dulled blade.
                        What corner of a venal heart
                        can fail to brighten
                        at the lethal shine of lucre’s light,
                        if by a wicked tribunal
                        Reason is outdone
                        and the Law is made by dealing,
                        for guilty spoils of vile treasure.
                                     (Giannettini/Giardini, La creatione de’ magistrati di Mosè, Part I)

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The Iron Age, Pietro da Cortona (Florence, 1641)

                              

In Giannettini’s own time, the concept of Astraea’s return figured heavily in art and literature, though not in his native Italy. On the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, John Dryden published his panegyric poem Astraea Redux, praising the return of the Crown in the form of Charles II following the dissolution of Oliver Cromwell’s authoritarian regime. So distant in the past is the English revolution that one can easily forget the despair and desolation which accompanied Cromwell’s theocracy. Travel was restricted, music and art largely banned, food was rationed, all giving rise to widespread religious belief that apocalypse was nigh. The success of Dryden’s poem was not in its political or philosophical praise of the monarchy in its own right, but in its reflection of the widespread belief that the Stuart monarchy could turn back the clock.

For his long absence Church and State did groan;
Madness the pulpit, faction seized the throne:
Experienced age in deep despair was lost,
To see the rebel thrive, the loyal cross’d:
Youth that with joys had unacquainted been,
Envied gray hairs that once good days had seen:
We thought our sires, not with their own content,
Had, ere we came to age, our portion spent.  (John Dryden, Astraea Redux)

Of course, turning back the clock is fine, so long as it isn’t turned back too far. In 1687, Dryden’s poem was republished by supporters of James II to bolster the last campaign to restore Roman Catholicism in England. But despite the advice of the Pope and his wife, Mary of Modena, James II sought to restore the one true faith with an iron fist. Though he initially took steps to disestablish the Anglican Church’s constitutional monopoly through a series of reforms and legal repeals, he responded to critics by removing them or taking them hostage. Despite the fact that Roman Catholics represented no more than 2% of the English population in the 1680s, he replaced well over 90% of Anglican bureaucrats with Roman Catholics. By April 1688, he had imprisoned seven Anglican Bishops for the simple act of petitioning the Crown, effectively castrating the House of Lords and shutting down the Constitutional process. James II’s attempt to revive to return to the Tudor era only resulted in a system similar to Cromwell’s.

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Trial of the Seven Bishops, John Rogers Herbert (London, 1688)

But these events not only loomed large in England, but in Modena, where Giannettini was employed as a court musician by Mary’s brother, Francesco II d’Este. Mary and Francesco themselves were no strangers to the dangers of imprudence and ill judgment. In 1597, the Este family was deposed from their regency in Ferrara, and forced to flee the famous Castello Estense to Modena in a political scuffle. One can’t help but speculate the extent to which Giannettini’s characters in La creatione de’ magistrati di Mosè  – Moses, Zipporah and Jethro – were literal allegories of James II, Mary and the patriarchal Church. Upon the flight of Mary of Modena to France after the Glorious Revolution, Francesco II declared a period of mourning, commissioning dozens of oratorios to be performed, fostering reflection on demise of faith in the face of human greed. But most interestingly, much like Giannettini’s Mosaic oratorio, these oratorios also blend Classical mythology with episodes from the Old Testament to illustrate those themes which not only recur in the Bible, but human history.

The concept of “Western Culture” rides all too easily on a high horse, it can often seem. Frames of reference naturally change, from age to age and place to place, and in a multi-cultural city like New York, one would hope that there would be openness to other ideas and cultural vantage points that were perhaps alien to our parents, or even to ourselves. But such is the nature of the evolution of ideas that living philosophies and religions don’t necessarily have to die so much as be reframed and recontextualized. After all, Greek and Roman religion turned into Greek and Roman “mythology” over the course of centuries, providing fruit for artists and writers to pick when other frames of reference fail or merit augmentation. The Book of Exodus too, once a prescriptive text and a literal tale of a nation’s simultaneous deliverance and strife is now largely a polemical tome, though perhaps out of fashion because of Judeo-Christian ideals are in this moment likewise passé and yet too close to associations with America’s religious right. And yet, the tales of the past can continue to inform and remind us not only about the characters embedded in the stories, but about subsequent events and squabbles in which the antiquity’s was one prism of many through which the world was viewed. It can bring art and music of the past to life, making them relevant to our own time and place.

                              

If you’re like me, you will have been disturbed by subversion of the American Presidency from a position of leadership into a tool of extortion. Whatever your views on the border wall are, it’s hard to deny that Trump’s determination to take government wages hostage would be laughable were it not so economically disastrous for hundreds of thousands of families. Such is magnanimity of error of judgment and callous disregard for the well-being of ordinary American citizens, that one cannot help but wonder if we are about to hear the Republican Party’s swan song. After all the excitement about 2016 election, and the conviction that the American Left had truly failed America, I’m convinced that the events of the last four weeks will cast a longer shadow than any investigation about Russian collusion, or any horrible comment about women, immigrants or the vulnerable. Whether we like it or not, Trump’s dishonesty can be twisted to seem like character flaws, and he certainly would not be the first liar in public office. But Trump’s capacity for vindictive pride has officially outshone that of any other politician I have seen in my short lifetime. Of course, quite a bit can happen between now and 2020, but it would seem that a new standard for unethical leadership has been set.

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Again and again in history and literature, the decisions about leadership and communication directly affect a leader’s success. Moses had the good wisdom to listen to advice and resign his authority, electing magistrates to implement the law before he was deposed. James II did not, and faced a rebellion which not only saw his permanent expulsion to France, but the legal suppression of Catholicism in England until 1829. One can argue for against their respective political enterprises, as in the end both men sought to establish harsh and inflexible theocracies. But regardless of any political stance, the stakes of political action act like pendula, swinging back with the same force with which they were set them in motion. In this regard there is no better example than Ovid’s fate after Metamorphoses, composed over period of time during which Ovid fell out of public favor. In Book I, it is clear that Ovid is not only confident in his status as a poet, but in his own stature in the Roman Empire, comparing its fortitude to that of the Gods themselves. But by Book XV, written not long before his expulsion from Rome to the Black Sea, one can see the cracks forming in the Roman imperial mythology. Before concludes with brief and insincere praise of Augustus and his father Julius Caesar, he inserts a lengthy prophecy attributed to the figure Pythagoras. It speaks not of mathematical perfection or impermeability, but the ease at which the mighty can fall.

This let me further add, that Nature knows
No steadfast station, but, or ebbs, or flows:
Ever in motion; she destroys her old,
And casts new figures in another mold.
Ev’n times are in perpetual flux, and run,
Like rivers from their fountain, rolling on,
For time, no more than streams, is at a stay;
The flying hour is ever on her way:

The golden age, to silver was debased:
To copper that; our metal came at last.
The face of places, and their forms, decay;
And that is solid Earth, that once was sea:
Seas in their turn retreating from the shore,
Make solid land, what ocean was before;
And far from strands are shells of fishes found,
And rusty anchors fixed on mountain-ground:
And what were fields before, now washed and worn
By falling floods from high, to valleys turn,
And crumbling still descend to level lands;
And lakes, and trembling bogs, are barren sands.
And the parched desert floats in streams unknown;
wondering to drink of waters not her own.
Here Nature living fountains opes; and there
Seals up the wombs, where living fountains were;
Or earthquakes stop their ancient course, and bring
Diverted streams to feed a distant spring.  

(Ovid, Metamorphoses XV, translation attributed to John Dryden)

One wonders how long it will take the Republican Party to realize that unless they ditch Trump, Astraea will not only leave, but return with an axe to grind. Whether you agree with members of my generation or not, they possess a level of vitriol and anger commensurate with the assault on practice of politics under this administration. As the Right continues to move even more to the right, so too does the left pull in the opposite direction. Like Ovid, the Republican Party’s actions put them at risk of not only taking second place in 2020, but of being violently excised from future political discourse. It would be a pity to see the advent of nothing but a political mirror of the inflexibility that has come the characterize the presidency as of late.

 

Ricercar (1/6)

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HarpingOn

Having left New York for the wilds of New England, a man returns home to take his dog to the park. September’s mildness has brought relief to the dog owners of the Upper West Side who, having shaken off summer’s oppressive heat, saunter through Central Park with ease and comfort, free to ponder in silence the prescience of autumn’s hues.

The dogs chase and wrestle on the lawn, and the man paces alone at distance, his ears sheltered beneath headphones and his eyes behind sunglasses. He looks out, his mind retreating into an aural landscape of Bach and distant taxi cabs, embodying the simultaneous contradiction and reconciliation of being back in the city: of being alone amidst millions of others who are also alone. He pauses to feel the breeze and takes in the sight of canine innocence and falling leaves, asphalt and withering grass, things permanent and ephemeral.

That is, until he is interrupted. He looks down to find his dog at his feet, pawing at his leg to vie for affection. The man is taken with her face. As he looks down at her, she rotates her lengthy snout and pert ears exactly forty-five degrees in to form an inquisitive expression. No sooner than he kneels to pet her, she begins to speak.

LUNCHMEAT. What are you listening to?

LOGAN. Excuse me?

LUNCHMEAT. Through your headphones.

LOGAN. I’m not sure how to answer the question.

LUNCHMEAT. Why is that?

LOGAN. Because in one sense, I am listening to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and in another I am not.

LUNCHMEAT. How so?

LOGAN. I mean to say that I am not listening to Bach so much as I’m listening to Bach through another man’s deceptive machinations – that is, another voice.

LUNCHMEAT. Whose voice is that?

LOGAN. Anton Webern’s, in his orchestration of the 6-part Ricercar from The Musical Offering.

LUNCHMEAT. I know it well. What renders your concern that this is not truly Bach?

LOGAN. From the very first notes, the sounds of a trombone, a muted horn and a harp’s harmonic and mark a departure from Bach’s natural realm as I know it. Such instruments are not designed for counterpoint, but for orchestral phantasms, aural visions of alienation and terror. Where I wish to follow a group of equal voices, my ear can only discern a chaos of instruments weaving in and out of each other to pervert the subjects and countersubjects. I simply cannot follow it, and return to the same conclusion again and again that Webern’s treatment represents the absence of lines or shapes: a decadent chasm of formless harmonic plumes.

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LUNCHMEAT. Your description is so poetic that I remain puzzled as to what troubles you.

LOGAN. I’m troubled because Webern’s treatment of the Ricercar eliminates Bach’s careful counterpoint altogether. There are no fugal entries or cessations or any semblance of linear organization. I can derive no notion that the work is comprised of six distinct voices. The experience is almost irritating, as it it no way resembles the experience of hearing it on the piano.

LUNCHMEAT. Ah, well therein lies your problem.

LOGAN. What do you mean?

LUNCHMEAT. What evidence have you that the Ricercar was composed for the piano?

LOGAN. Well we know Bach first played it for King Frederick the Great on one of the fifteen pianos at the Prussian Court.

LUNCHMEAT. Do we?

LOGAN. It’s generally accepted that it is Bach’s only work for the piano. Dr. Charles Rosen’s essay on the Ricercar went so far as to proclaim the work to be the greatest ever composed for the piano, only awaiting reclamation by the modern pianists.

LUNCHMEAT. I hate to disappoint you (or Dr. Rosen for that matter), but those were fortepianos in King Frederick’s court, not pianofortes as we know them today. (And we have no evidence that Bach ever owned one himself.)

LOGAN. Are the two so substantially different?

LUNCHMEAT. I’m afraid so. Consider their size for instance, they do not have the dynamic capacity or sustaining ability of a modern piano. Furthermore, the advantage of the fortepiano was that the sustaining potential was in fact less than the natural lengthy bloom of a harpsichord or the perpetual wind supply of an organ.

LOGAN. But surely it can play counterpoint just like any keyboard instrument.

LUNCHMEAT. Perhaps. But does not Dr. Rosen’s thesis rest on an assumption that the Ricercar isn’t truly contrapuntal, but harmonic in essence as the piano’s dynamic sensitivity is not conducive to the even delivery of counterpoint, but rather of sonority. Think about it: can you name any other great contrapuntal works written for the fortepiano in this period?

LOGAN. I suppose I can’t.

LUNCHMEAT. So why would you only ever want to hear the Ricercar only on the piano? Or rather why should any other rendition imitate the piano, if it is not suited to the counterpoint you treasure?

LOGAN. I suppose I do not know.

LUNCHMEAT. And anyhow, are you so sure that Bach even played “the” Ricercar for the King on the piano?

LOGAN. We’re told he improvised it on the spot, after being handed a theme from the King, and wrote it down on his return to Leipzig.

LUNCHMEAT: Tell me, can you recall what you said in a conversation some weeks ago and textually reproduce it verbatim?

LOGAN. No, that would be impossible.

LUNCHMEAT. Indeed. And even if you could, wouldn’t you take the opportunity to express what you had said better, if given the opportunity? Think back to Bach’s own address to the King at the front of The Musical Offering.

LOGAN. What address? I don’t recall such a document in Dr. Rosen’s essay.

LUNCHMEAT. Does Bach only speak through Dr. Rosen’s lips? You can find it in the opening chapter of Dr. Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher and Bach.

LOGAN. Of course, yes. I do remember now.

LUNCHMEAT. Good. What did it say?

LOGAN. Bach was rather self-deprecatory, if I recall correctly, implying that his improvisation was imperfect and unsatisfactory – that it required editing.

LUNCHMEAT. Hence the title.

LOGAN. Beg pardon?

LUNCHMEAT. “Ricercar” rather than “fugue.”

R e g i s

I u s ta

C a n t i o

E t

R e l i q u a

C a n o n i c a

A r t e

R e s o l u t a

LOGAN. “At the King’s Command….the song… and remainder resolved with…”

LUNCHMEAT. “…with perfect art.” Canonica refers of course to the canons in The Musical Offering (of which Dr. Hofstadter wrote so eloquently with regards to Escher visual matrices), but it also has an implication that “the best possible way” has been found.

LOGAN. So it’s a play on words.

LUNCHMEAT. Think of not so much as a play on words as an insight into a journey towards perfection. The very term Ricercar is taken from the Italian word “to search.” Before the fixed form or genre of the fugue, there was the Ricercar, the musical embodiment of the process the composer goes through to seek out the contrapuntal potential of the subject. In this sense, the musical work functions like an essay, and the composer, an orator. In delivering a thesis or theory, no dux can ever be self-evident unless its evidentiary nature has been manifest in each and every comes. Every last detail in the score of the Ricercar points to the search for an unattainable perfection, even down the format of the score.

LOGAN. How do you mean?

LUNCHMEAT. Each voice is granted its own line, implying an almost primeval equity in contrapuntal annunciation.

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LOGAN. How is anyone supposed read such a score and play it simultaneously?

LUNCHMEAT. Perhaps one is not meant to.

LOGAN. You mean to tell me that some of the most beautiful notes in history are not meant to be performed? At all?

LUNCHMEAT. Are all words made to be uttered? Tell me, as a writer: how do words “exist?” Do they only exist in our ability to say them? Do they not exist in our thoughts, our private confidences or in secrets?

LOGAN. Of course, words exist in multiple plains, but only as a result each individual’s own language. Dr. Michel Foucault spelled that out plainly in The Archaeology of Knowledge.

LUNCHMEAT. But why?

LOGAN. Because languages themselves are not symbols, but dialogical

spaces for the reconciliation of opposing ideas through words. Languages by nature are pure. It is words that muddy the waters and where contradictions occur.

LUNCHMEAT. Once upon a time, some music functioned much the same way: as a language. To inscribe notes on a page was not merely to express a ephemeral idea, but to communicate a piece of eternity found within one’s own musical language – that is, something that can’t be uttered aloud without ambiguity. The closer a composer got to touching the eternal, the more antiquated or archaic the physical presentation.

LOGAN. Other composers did this as well?

LUNCHMEAT. Oh yes, many. So utterly despondent was Josquin at the death of his mentor Ockeghem that he composed his Deploration de Jehan Ockeghem in medieval chant notation, a system several hundred years out of date.

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LOGAN. Why?

LUNCHMEAT. So that the primacy of the cantus firmus taken from the medieval Requiem Mass might be seen, not just heard. Four of the five voices sing the words Wood-nymphs, goddesses of the fountains//Skilled singers of every nation//Turn your voices, so clear and lofty//To piercing cries and lamentation. But the fifth voice, barely audible sings the text Eternal rest grant unto them, the opening lines of from the Requiem. In listening, the ancient religious element is concealed or obfuscated, while the element determines the entire format of the score.

LOGAN. Why this juxtaposition? This sounds like a matter of history, not emotion.

LUNCHMEAT. Because there are things humans cannot hear, but only see: things like sorrow, pain, or proportion. One cannot hear a devastation on par with a catastrophe like the Black Death, a sadness Josquin felt was unparalleled in his own time. But one can see it, when the emotion is framed in format that transcends borders like time. One cannot hear the conjunction of the sacred and the profane, but they can see a French text beneath a liturgical notation system normally used for Latin, the language of the Church. It is a music beyond the ears, and a sorrow beyond comprehension, engaging not only the ear, but the eye and the soul.

LOGAN. Are there such eternal truths in the Ricercar?

LUNCHMEAT. Yes, in both sight and sound. Such is the essence of all musica pura, (pure music) or Augenmusik (music for the eyes). But any truths can only be divined if we accept our limitations in being able to approach them.

LOGAN. How can music be transmitted if not through sound?

LUNCHMEAT. Do we ask “how” poetry is to be recited, all because the visual perfection with which it is presented is immaculate? It would be inconceivable to ask how George Herbert “Easter Wings” ought to be “accurately” conveyed, or to ask how Mallarmé or Apollinaire “intended” their poetry to be read aloud, if at all. There is nothing stopping anyone from memorizing the Ricercar, transcribing it into a more digestible format as suits them, or even from realizing a performance for more than one musician, as Webern did in his orchestration.

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LOGAN. So Webern’s transcription is actually appropriate?

LUNCHMEAT. What I mean is that Webern’s transcription falls no more or less short than any other realization of the Ricercar in sight or sound.

LOGAN. Can anyone ever perform the Ricercar as Bach intended?

LUNCHMEAT. No (and certainly not on a piano (as Bach never owned one). No matter what instrument you play it on, there will be a problem, an imperfection, and a thus miraculous glance at the unattainable. The organ will be too muddy, the harpsichord will be too reverberant, the orchestra will be too diffuse, and the piano will be too dynamic and eccentric.

LOGAN. Is this not troublesome at all to you?

LUNCHMEAT. Not at all.

LOGAN. How?

LUNCHMEAT. Because what instrument any work of Bach ought to be played on does not trouble me, as it does you. Humans are uncomfortable with the notion that they may fall short, without realizing that their own shortcomings only serve to uphold those truths they try to live up to. As I’m a dog, and can play no instrument, I can accept and conceive of a total inability to perform the music of Bach. This is no truer than in the Ricercar, which was composed for all instruments and none. For an invisible instrument. For me.

Luzzaschi

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HarpingOn

It’s my first full day at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, a place which can be described simply as a musician’s paradise. Rural New Hampshire’s isolation offers both seclusion and quietude, and the immediate proximity of practice studios to one’s bedroom and dining hall offer the opportunity to focus and work with as much or as little interruption as you wish. A Grove Dictionary of Music sits at one end of the barn, a sign that one has the time and space not only to practice, but to satisfy any sudden curiosity about a composer or piece. To get to the lake, one walks through an apple orchard where one can pick a snack off a tree (though the home-cooked food here fills and satisfies dozens of New-Yorquinos who might normally be precious about their Phad Thai or almond latte). For those seeking some animal therapy, there’s ample time to commune with Jessie, a large German Shepherd who often appears at mealtimes along with her owner Fred Tauber, Avaloch’s godfather and spiritual leader.

There are broadly no restrictions here, yet the atmosphere engenders a positivity which tacitly enforces one golden rule: don’t spoil it. There are new and familiar faces alike, but no cliques. Though there are discussions about life and work in New York, they somehow don’t revolve around the MTA’s existential state of dysfunction or the price of real estate (subjects of roughly 40% of Manhattanite conversations). Vulgarity is seldom heard. Exhibitions of resentment or negativity are absent. One gets the feeling that this is what summer camp was supposed to be like when you were a kid, had it not been for inhibiting factors such as homesickness, puberty or adolescent low self-esteem.

All of us are here are working on new music in some form. This week, the resident ensembles include several string quartets, a brass group, a jazz ensemble as well as some soloists collaborating with composers on fresh pieces. Having brought my baroque and modern harps up with me from New York, I’ve met up here with composer/violinist George Meyer and mandolinist/composer Tom Morrison. Having worked with each other in various capacities at Juilliard, we decided to see what we could create if we put ourselves and our instruments together in a room.

This morning’s session started off with the first movement of Bach’s Trio Sonata in E-flat, BWV 525. While the exercise was to collaboratively create a unified sound, the process was one of personal humility. Finding ways to feed off the combination of three different instruments, we took opportunity to listen to the correspondence between bow strokes and mandolin plucks, and pay close attention to how the sounds we produce might accidentally sustain over another instrument. String instruments, be they bowed or plucked, are incredibly noisy and fussy. For instance, an expressive scratch on a bow, perhaps ideal for Brahms or Franck, can cover up a mandolin’s phrase or arc. A boomy line from the harp’s mid-range can turn a refined texture into baby-foody mush. Thus, we worked on the initial attacks of individual notes, only then determining the color and spin of the subsequent production of tone. Introducing one’s presence in the texture becomes a humbling enterprise, so as to ensure that one isn’t obfuscating the mellifluous line of another instrument. This is the joy of chamber music: a process whereby happiness can be derived not just from playing with others, but in witnessing how you can lend encouragement to your colleagues so that they might reveal the best of themselves.

From there we took a break and started improvising, simply to enjoy what might evolving out of some free collaborative chemistry. Initially, Tom and I figured out how to make the combined texture of the harp and mandolin line up, so as to give a wide and flexible base for George to work with. (For those who don’t know George’s playing, it’s really fun to play with. He’s to switch between classical and fiddling styles with incredible virtuosic ease, transforming a downtown minimalist vibe into a soundscape from middle America.) Starting with two note-cells and then moving one by one to 4 or 5 note groupings, we found a common language that would allow the other voice to emerge clearly though seamlessly. As George started playing, patterns of implied harmonies started to take the small melodic shapes he would feed us, and in turn all three of us started to learn each other’s go-to ticks and instincts – the tools we use to get messages across. Before long, a structure took shape, and with each miniature jam session, more would be loosely notated.

The morning and afternoon sessions flew by, both insanely productive, so after dinner we decided to have the evening off. As George and Tom headed down to the basement to play ping-pong with members of the Momenta Quartet, I returned to the studio for some time alone with the baroque harp. Lately I’ve been working through the toccatas from Girolamo Diruta’s Il Transilvano, a collection of pieces not only by Diruta, but by several of his Venetian colleagues, such as Claudio Merulo and Luzzasco Luzzaschi. Diruta’s curatorial project offers insight into how organists and keyboardists were taught in the late 16th century. But more importantly for me, it also offers insight into how harp music started to take off in the same period. Though baroque HP nerds talk about the “Italian Baroque Harp” colloquially, much of it characteristic identity as a florid scale and arpeggio machine is derived from a group of composers in Naples who travelled north to study with the likes of Luzzaschi and Merulo. Since Avaloch is a space for exploration, I decided to start from the source and see what harpists and harp composers were being handed by their keyboardist progenitors.

Throughout Il Transilvano there are scales upon scales upon more scales throughout the manuscript, initially encouraging an impassioned Liszt-like frenzy. Fortunately, Diruta’s accompanying treatise on playing the organ itself offers a key piece of advice early on, telling students that even if they wish to play with force or agility, that they ought to maintain a supple hand, “as if handling an infant.” Luzzaschi’s Toccata del Quarto Tono grants a particular challenge in balancing the sweet with the virtuosic. Because of the huge amount of acoustic ringing that goes on beneath a harp’s sounding board, calculating the proper velocity of attack on the strings takes an anally high level of of care and treatment. For instance, the scales have to pass seamlessly between hands – one has to ensure that the two hands are moving the strings the same amount so that there isn’t a sudden bump when there’s an exchange. The scales themselves also have to sound at an appropriate volume level so that the level virtuosity doesn’t cover up the implicit harmonies. Conversely, one has to accept that there are things that will inevitably not be as clear as on the organ or the harpsichord (confronting the harp’s idiosyncrasies realistically is the flip-side of the coin). The exercise prompts an internal conversation between your hands, the music and the instrument. Each has an equal say in the process, but your hands and sensibilities cannot become constricted or forced.

Sitting in bed, I’m overwhelmed by the care that goes into a space like Avaloch’s. For the first time in a very long while, it feels as if innocence and humility can truly sit side by side with intense and high-pressured creative processes. As my generation’s musical mentors and trailblazers continue to disappoint us in the ongoing revelations of the #MeToo era, a space dedicated to honest and open creative enterprises are more important than ever, as they don’t simply foster musical innovation but emotional restoration. I find myself asking what more I could be doing with my own approach to music this week, as I continue to transport organ music to the harp bench. Organists spend so much time alone, that a week spent with a collaborative mindset is still jarring to the sensibilities. Organists are a notoriously proud breed, isolated by their sincerity yes, but perhaps by a misplaced solemnity which translates into pride. Here at Avaloch, the scenery is too beautiful, the accommodations too comfortable, and the people too honest for any expression of pride. My residency here has already proven to be a humbling experience.