The last few weeks have been a dry spell, as my attempts to write anything interesting about my new apartment on 64th Street have ultimately failed. Just in case you’re interested, here’s the rundown:
Packing is time-consuming.
Why do I own 38 Oxford shirts and 56 ties, but no cereal bowls, coffee mugs or an umbrella?
I own too many books.
Yup, ownership of three editions of the complete keyboard works of Buxtehude is still a total necessity, right?
All of it had to be moved 125 blocks away.
In the rain.
Oh, goody. See “umbrella” above.
And thus in cabs.
I wonder how much longer I can go without making a credit card payment?
The new place is a studio.
Something about living in matchboxes.
Decorating is stressful.
I still hate IKEA.
Had to buy everything new.
But I hate Bed, Bath and Beyond even more.
But it’s cute.
Almost as cute as the handyman.
And close to school.
Life is good.
Beyond that, there’s not much to say.
I confess to being distracted, thinking instead on the recent passing of literary giant, Umberto Eco. Talking about one’s favorite author, musician or artist without going over the top can be difficult. It’s so strange that his books feel so important to me, considering that while I’m intimate with his literary and academic output, I know next to nothing of his personal life. Perhaps that makes me a half-hearted fan, but since news of Eco’s death, I’ve had an urge to put my finger on exactly why his novels have meant so much to me and felt so personally relevant.
I was first introduced to Eco by my friend Alison at the age of 12. She knew that his writing would probably strike a chord with me, as she had been a previous enabler of my childhood obsession with antiquity (I always was an odd kid). When I was 4, she gave me an Ancient Egypt-themed archaeology kit, in which the child archeologist has to excavate a plastic Ankh and Scarab from a small block of sand using a plastic pick and miniature hammer. Refusing to put my tools down until I had unearthed these precious artifacts, I proceeded to get sand all over the kitchen floor in an incident for which I’m fairly positive my mother has yet to forgive Alison. This episode begat an intense Egyptological phase and the quick accumulation of innumerable books and diagrams of the ancient practices of mummification and postmortem organ harvesting.
It was all okay until I started Kindergarten. At Stuart Burns Elementary School, our weekly show-and-tell usually consisted of dramatic presentations of Cubist masterpieces or facts and figures of the tooth fairy’s latest investment into one or anothe college fund. What can I say? I had very bright classmates. But one day I opted to discuss a more pressing matter, informing my classmates of their imminent demise (King Tut was what, 9 years old when he died, right?) and that the god Anubis would soon require their brains to be extracted through their noses with a red hot poker and placed in a jar. Oddly, my teacher and squeamish classmates had other ideas about the urgency of such a matter, and I was cut off before I could discuss the intricacies of disembowelment and removal of vital organs with iron tongs. I was subsequently discouraged from offering another show-and-tell presentation for the rest of the school year.
When Alison handed me my first copy of The Name of the Rose, I felt the same anachronistic immersion as I did with my former Egypt craze, as fantastic and bizarre details comprised a scenario which was not only plausible, but borderline nuts. It’s the year 1327, and a series of murders takes place in a remote Italian monastery where feuding monastic orders convene to debate a contentious theological issue: did Christ ever laugh? As nymphomaniacs and lunatics roam the monastery and the local peasantry exchange sex for food, the bodies start to pile up. Corpses are variously found poisoned, drowned, impaled, shoved off the tops of towers, and poached in vats of pigs’ blood. Amazing.
The gory, T.M.I. aspects of the book are balanced by the presence of some pretty nerdy characters. A book lover by the name of William of Baskerville is the novel’s hero, a retired inquisitor who has renounced his former life persecuting the Waldensians. His teenage novice is otherwise occupied, losing his virginity to the local lice-ridden, rooster-sacrificing peasant witch-doctor girl (kinky), or being hit on an apocalypse-obsessed monk whose pick up lines consist of ramblings on about the Virgin Mary’s breast milk (ew). After 550 pages of raunch and mayhem, William and his novice confront the murderer in the bowels of the library. It’s none other than a blind, octogenarian Spanish monk, who is found literally eating arsenic-laced pages of the only surviving copy of Aristotle’s Comedy. Of course, rather than conceding, he sets fire to the library, killing himself in Wagnerian fashion.
As you can tell, I was hooked. I had found the dorkiest author ever, catering to those like me who love nothing more than books, puzzles and sex.
Though I made my way through Baudolino and Foucault’s Pendulum in high school, a bachelor’s in history effectively eradicated my ability to read for pleasure. I had become content with watching Girls and Orange is the New Black for some white-washed ethical discomfort. Fortunately, a return to my favorite author remedied my period of literary abstinence. One Christmas, the prospect of a long family road trip from Tennessee to Maryland seemed too long to endure without some intellectual stimulation. Looking for something long and involved, I grabbed my autographed copy of The Prague Cemetery, a present that had been given to me several years before.
Riding through the Appalachians of Eastern Tennessee into Virginia, I was transported to the landscape of political conspiracy and hysteria in post-Bonapartean France. Narrated by a professional forger named Simonini, the book revolves around the political propaganda underworld, run by impoverished writers and petty criminals. The book is fun, as Simonini doesn’t just stay in Paris, but at follows Alexandre Dumas and Garibaldi around Sicily during the Wars of Italian Unification. Returning to Paris, he escapes execution under the Paris Commune.
I felt a certain appreciation for Simonini as he’s a total foodie, providing immense detail about his daily meals, and thus a history the modern Parisian diet (such as the favorability of pork liver to horse meat). The fact he’s so passionate about food is great, talking about ortalons and bombes in the same dirty manner as a creep crudely discussing his sexual fantasies. His hatefulness is totally over the top too. Obese politicians, big noses and the female reproductive system all receive his utter disdain in an uncomfortably easy flow of sarcasm. In the vein of Balzac or Dumas, Eco forged a character you love to hate.
Or so you think. By novel’s end, the reader is not rendered so much amused as devastated by Simonini’s sheer unadulterated malice. His villainy as a propagandist reaches an incredible zenith, as he composes his magnum opus, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, perhaps the most infamous piece of racist literature in history. Eco composes a 25 page anti-Semitic rant so detestable that I felt the need to place the book down from time to time. Considering the Protocols’s place in the history of European anti-Semitism, the possibility that I had spent 500 pages confronting Simonini’s day to day life with humor was difficult to digest. Eco even admitted that,
“With this novel, the material I was dealing with was so ugly that I felt a lot of embarrassment. I had to create an absolutely ugly character, a repugnant character, which can certainly be a challenge for a writer.”
Yet the chilling implications of the main character’s complicity in inciting racist atrocities do not allow Simonini to be written off so easily. The unreliability of his narrative is rooted in the fact that he suffers from schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder, receiving orders to commit murders from a mysterious Jesuit priest, who is in contact with evil Jews and Illuminati seeking to overthrow governments. In taking orders from his alter-ego, Simonini himself is the personal manifestation of the Zionist-Jesuit conspiracy which consumes his thoughts and livelihood. Indeed, it becomes apparent that in fabricating a web of lies about Jesuits and European religious orders, he is somehow writing literature to defame his alter-ego who tortures him.
Eco beckons reader to assess the culpability of a man who is not in full possession of his mental faculties. You’re not completely sure of what you an can believe, or if you are even being fair in your assessment. His unapologetic anti-Semitism cannot be so easily explained by his upbringing or his mental health, and perhaps is merely exaggerated because of his state of mind. At the end of the day, The Prague Cemetery is not simply a book about the excesses of European nationalism and the legacy of violence left by the French Revolution. The sheer amount of detail and attention paid to the newspapers of the period and widespread paranoia are only the materials with which the character has to play with. Overall it becomes completely unclear as to the extent to which his obsessive racism comes as a result of his illness or of the social landscape in which he operates. I myself wasn’t sure what to make of him in the end, as his ability to remember dates and astutely analyze political events seemed staggeringly accurate. Simonini ceased to become the unreliable narrator. I was simply an unreliable reader.
Ok, so I’m slightly irritated with this blog post already. I’ve basically given overviews of two great books, but have still failed to say what on earth Eco has to do with music, or why he’s important to me as a musician. I suppose I could try and discuss how these two books were important for me in terms of how I view history and ideas, but all that would be revealed is that my perspective on history doesn’t possess any particular sense of originality, rendering you likely to shutdown your browser to find something genuinely entertaining.
I should quit stalling and talk about my favorite book of Eco’s. My love for The Mysterious Flame of the Queen Loana is possibly due with my own preoccupations during the time at which I read it, during the final stages of preparation for my master’s recital on harpsichord. Whether out of naïveté, pride, or sheer stupidity, I decided to take on Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The Goldbergs have an elusive quality about them. This simple theme and thirty derivative pieces (variations) are so different from each other, that it’s possible to forget the relationship to the place where you began. For the listener, it’s a huge feat of memory, as the number of movements form more an aphoristic than narrative structure, a strange collection of fragmented recollections or reflections. You’re led further and further away in texture, affect and complexity, forcing you to always be in the moment, despite constant tonal centricity around the key of G. It seems the tonality is the only real grounding, providing a sort of aural tantric zone that allows you to get lost, search, explore.
On stage, the harpsichordist faces some hefty technical demands, but also the intellectual task of giving due attention to each variation as if it were its own universe. Except for two variations, there are no performance instructions about tempi or affect, and each movement potentially provides some form of external reference to one or another Baroque dance form, rhetorical device or even national style (Italian, French, etc.). In looking to sources for information on potential ideas for stylistic approach, it’s daunting. With each variation, my wonderful mentor Lisa guided me through historical sources, methods of analysis and acoustics. Such was the depth of exploration that we were spending as much time at a desk with pencils as at an instrument, drawing graphs and visual metaphors on the score and scrap paper. The Goldbergs were a fantastic, but unnerving rabbit hole by the end. The more I worked, more endless the possibilities for the performance decisions became.
I feel I have to pause to acknowledge my awareness that there’s something corny or kind of kitschy about the way some musicians ascribe great works an ability to incite voyages of self-discovery. With the Goldbergs, I feel I’m on the cusp of making such a statement. But I really think it was my concurrent journey with Yambo, a man piecing his life together through the fog of amnesia, that ushered in a certain transformation for me as a musician.
Yambo’s predicament in Loana was more pressing than my own. Awakening from a coma, he’s unable to remember anything of his former life except through recollections of historical facts and literary characters. For the first 10 pages or so, he’s only able to speak in quotes from the books he’s read. When asked his name, he replies Arthur Gordon Pym, Edgar Allen Poe’s famous protagonist. Yambo discovers he’s an antiquarian book dealer by trade, and that despite his own struggle to remember his family, his loved ones find him to be rather the same as he was before his stroke. He’s a fact machine, somewhat sterile, somehow allergic to emotion or close human contact. His isolation is very dark from the novel’s opening pages, having to meet his wife, children and grandchildren all at once for the first time. But what eats at him is not that he cannot remember them, but rather that he can only form associations with them through the books he has consumed in his life.
“The encyclopedia was tumbling down on me, its pages loose, and I felt like waving my hands the way one does in a swarm of bees. Meanwhile the children call me Grandpa, I knew I was supposed to love them more than myself, and yet I could not tell which was Giangio, which was Alessandro, which was Luca. I knew all about Alexander the Great, but nothing about Alessandro the tiny, the mine.
“They left and I cried. Tears are salty. So, I still had feelings. Yes, but made fresh daily. Whatever feelings I once had were no longer mine. I wonder if I had ever been religious; it was clear, whatever the answer, that I had lost my soul.”
The prose is total heartbreak from the book’s opening pages. As the continuous stream of emotional scenes only increase, Eco’s usual esotericism gives way to something uncharacteristically sappy.
The balance struck between the learned and the unabashedly saccharine comprised an appropriate literary companion to my own intense voyage with the Goldbergs. It was as if Yambo’s search for his memory was a hyperbolic expression of my own frustration in reconciling innumerable musicological facts with my own musical intuition. Not only that, I felt a certain affinity with Yambo himself. A close friend from college repeatedly called me “Wikipedia”, in an attempt to lightheartedly confront me on my propensity to spout useless facts, nitpick, or generally exude an aura of callousness and self absorption. At Oberlin, my ability to feel anything about ethics or aesthetics were still hampered, as the remnants of Cambridge degree emboldened my ability to absorb and regurgitate, but not much more. The more immediate result was the inability to listen to others out of pride, but the more worrying one was the inability to listen to myself, my intuition, out of sheer self-consciousness and fear of error.
The Goldbergs aroused another confrontation with such issues, as I was getting a bit too much enjoyment out of the nerdy aspects of the music before me. That’s one of the great things about the Goldbergs – they’re so varied and different that they naturally require some creativity in trying to bring out some historical details. No. 16 is given a title, Ouverture, pointing to French form traditionally used to musically introduce Baroque operas and ballets. It’s cute, as Bach not only a perfects the French style, using the the two halves of his aria for a flourish and a fugue, but also winks at his audience: aren’t overtures supposed to come at the beginning of a work, and not directly in the middle? No. 30 also has some humor, giving the audience something to cling to after an hour of canons and character pieces. Labelled a Quodiblet, this variation incorporates two popular German folksongs, Kraut und Rüben (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I think I’ll stay”) and Ich bin so lang bei dir g’west (“I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer!”).
“What the hell is a French Overture?”
“Why on earth would I have learned German folksongs in my American suburban elementary school?”
“You mean to tell me the climax of the Goldbergs is about… Cabbage?”
I’m aware that the cuteness factor only goes so far, and that the bigger picture is now lost. What should I give to my listeners? A book? A lengthy blogpost? How do I get these symbols across, when it has taken an amount of historical inquiry not expected of the listener? Even if I provide program notes for you, might I have to play the melodies of the Quodiblet with particular clarity to make my point?
I got a cup of coffee and grabbed Umberto.
Yambo’s journey made me pause to reconsider whether the historical stuff really mattered. Returning to his childhood home, he embarks on the task of trying to jog his memory through reading his old comic books, homework and his family papers. What he finds is troubling, as his childhood homework shows increasing respect and praise for Mussolini and the Fascist state. While the adult Yambo knows intrinsically that he’s a pacifist and a true liberal at heart, there are potentially multiple meanings to the materials in front of him. Was he simply a child doing as he was told in school, regurgitating the propaganda taught to him in the classroom? Or was he acutely aware of the implications, making it a game, trying to appear as sincere as possible to prove the trumped-up nature of the ideology?
“I was still missing some link, perhaps many links. At some point I had changed, but I did not why.
“I felt more confused than I had before I had arrived [at home]. At least before I remembered nothing, absolute zero. Now, I still could remember nothing, but I had learned too much. Who had I been?”
His childhood comics make him even more worried, as characters like Mickey and Minnie take on new Italian names, promote authoritarian sensibilities and literally kick out American characters in the story lines. Li’l Abner and Dick Tracy totally disappear, never to be heard from again, havng been labelled degenerate by the Nazis. Yambo knows that what few memories he has through his favorite books only exist because of their emotional weight, such as his favorite childhood comic books, Poe or Shakespeare. But he doesn’t remember these censored comic books at all. What Yambo feels about fascism and what he sees before him in his childhood don’t line up. Should he be resigned to the possibility that he was once a fascist? Or should he resolute to somehow correct the matter, and keep searching to prove otherwise?
The 25th variation in the Goldergs seemed to encapsulate Yambo’s rather fraught state by the middle of the book. The movement felt depressive, not only because the music of this variation is so impassioned and painful, but because the material incited a confrontation between my sensibilities and certain accepted ideas about the nature of the expression of sadness in music of the baroque. The variation has two remarkable elements to it; First there is the left hand, which sinks lower and lower in the first few bars, as if in quicksand aiding an extreme shift from G minor to F minor in just the first two measures. But the right hand also repeatedly sinks, creating a run on sentence which lags behind the harmonic direction of the left hand. The anti-synchronous effect creates innumerable clashes and dissonance, as if every note is somehow leaning into the next to resolve, but never finding a solution. Treatise upon treatise tell musicians to expose, accentuate or bring out points of pain and angst, creating minute silences before hand to make them louder or more jagged.
But what of a piece that is built upon nothing but these angular harmonic clashes? How can sadness only be an affect if it saturates the material throughout? If I give weight to each one, will they cease to sound painful, or simply affected? Thinking about it somehow got me out of my shell to consider that emotion in music is more than an affect or result, but a point of departure. What type of sadness am I dealing with? Is it Resolution? Resignation? Mournfulness? Stagnation?
Again, the stakes are far lower than they were with Yambo, but I became worried about presenting a certain front with the Goldbergs which was perhaps of no consequence to the listener. A few weeks before my performance, I began doing complete runs of the Goldbergs. I had mastered the variations technically and formally. Every voice was heard, every variation had a tempo relationship to the next, and every articulation, slur and ornament could be backed up somehow in one or another treatise. I had done it. I had learned the Goldbergs. But In listening back to the numerous tapes I made of myself, I managed to devise perhaps the most annoying rendition of the Goldbergs ever. To say that the result was politically correct would have been kind. They were simply dry, as I had managed to satisfy my intellectual urges but failed to get anything across to my audience. They were cool, proportioned, but boring. My worst fears were becoming a reality.
I began to read more about Eco, and wondering how it was he was moving me and how I might be able to incorporate the same into my playing. He said that “When you imagine a character, you lend him or her some of your personal memories. You give part of yourself to character number one and another part to character number two.” I realized that I was rendering no real associations with the music apart from the notes on the page.
I had to go back to the drawing board. I put away my score for a two weeks and only played from memory. I set alarms at various times of day, forcing me to drop whatever I was doing in Oberlin, and run to the nearest harpsichord to play one or another technically challenging variations. This wasn’t simply to face up to the athletic hurdles, but to see what I felt like in the moment with each of variations, completely in isolation from the next. I liquored up my friend Geoff to come and listen, in hopes that booze would loosen his inhibitions in telling me how he really perceived my performance. But I also began losing sleep – a lot of sleep in fact, simply spending hours listening to extraordinarily expressive music on my iPhone. Alfred Cortot’s recordings of Chopin, Gerald Finley’s renditions of Barber, Snow Patrol, Amy Winehouse, Adele, you name it, all flooded my headphones as did everything I could to shed my intellectual, bibliomaniac pretensions with one aim: to feel something in my Goldbergs.
All the while, I was still working towards completing Loana. I have to say that the ending is perhaps the most incredible of any novel I have encountered. Yambo discovers that the faceless girl of his memory is in fact long gone, and was nothing more than a schoolboy’s crush, unrequited to the extent that he barely exchanged words with her. The worries about fascism dissolve. It matters not that his father was a member of the resistance, aiding socialists to defeat the Nazis, or that Yambo’s own life had been one devoted to pacifism. The overwhelming journey, the angst and struggle all prompt another stroke. A 60 page dream sequence follows, in which Yambo remembers his entire life, through the prism of his childhood comic books. He remembers his childhood, his family, his wife children, spinning around with Mickey Mouse, Wonder Woman, and at last Queen Loana, the Oracle who seemingly absolves him of any newfound guilt of his existence. He dies in ecstasy, with a sort of Straussian swan song.
In the end, the memories I associated with the Goldbergs were of reading Eco, the wonderful counterpoint to my journey in learning these 30 little pieces. I felt nothing so extreme as Yambo’s death when I got to my recital. It was the last day of spring semester at Oberlin, and the performance went by rather quickly, as if I had somehow relived four months of practicing and reading in the span of an hour. Like Yambo’s whirlwind, there are times in which musicians have to let go and simply do it in order for it all to come together. In talking about the writing process, Eco admitted that while writing takes time, it’s the unexpected that’s rewarding.
“I collect material, I write, I rewrite. I am in a sort of a private world of myself with my characters. I don’t know what will happen. I discover it step by step. And I become very sad when the novel is finished because there is no more pleasure, no more surprise.”
I couldn’t tell you what my performance decisions were on the day if I tried, because I simply don’t remember. The only memory I have is of Variation 25. A key got stuck in the opening bars, and I had to briefly stop and repair the instrument before continuing. I could have been stressed out about it, but the irony about it brought unexpected relief. The exhibition of something so real made me feel as the performance was somehow visceral, authentic. The overall memory was one of it all coming together because I had derived some metaphorical meaning through which to channel some truly incredible music, to transcend through translation. Perhaps this memory will trigger a new interpretation next time round. Who knows?
My newfound yearning for the unforeseeable led me to leave no trace of the performance except in my memory. I made no recording, and returned my marked score to the library. There were hugs given and tears from several listeners after the performance, with all my closest companions present to listen. My teachers talked about structure and architecture to the work as a whole. Variation 25 received extremely mixed reviews, thankfully. I suppose this was where I differed from Yambo, as I had taken the extra step to remove the need for absolution, and opted instead for reconciliation. My mind and my feelings had met and departed, and left me with a sense of joy, a sensation I had feared I would never impart with an audience.
This is why I will always return to Eco. Despite all the geekiness, the overly verbose prose and obscure characters, there is a simple felicity to his work. It’s clear that Eco enjoyed doing nothing more than writing, and sharing his love for all things weird from times past. The sheer unabashed nature of his writing style exudes happiness and whimsicality, and thus a true sense of authenticity. I only hope that I can repeat experiences like that of my Goldbergs, and give a fraction of the happiness which Eco gave to his readers.
Umberto, you will be sorely missed.