Preludes

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HarpingOn

None but churchgoers seemed abroad that morning; undergraduates and graduates and wives and tradespeople, walking with that unmistakable English church-going pace which eschewed equally both haste and idle sauntering; holding, bound in black lambskin and white celluloid, the liturgics of half a dozen conflicting sects; on their way to St Barnabas, St Columba, St Aloysius, St Mary’s, Pusey House, Blackfriars, and heaven knows where besides; to restored Norman and revived Gothic, to travesties of Venice and Athens; all in the summer sunshine going to the temples of their race. So through a world of piety I made my way to Sebastian.

It’s tough to imagine that there might be any experience so vivid as a scene from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. With virtuosic ease, he always managed to capture peculiarities and specificities that make you feel like you’re there with him, in the place and the moment. Avoiding verbosity, the entire experience of wandering through Oxford on a Sunday morning is captured in such a way that it can’t be transplanted onto another landscape. It’s as good as it gets. (It’s also extremely sexy when recited by Jeremy Irons in the BBC miniseries, in case you were wondering.)

In strolling towards Central Park on Saturday morning, my mind wandered to this particular passage of Waugh. A bit like Charles Ryder (Waugh’s protagonist) I felt as if I myself was walking amongst the pious. My Lululemons and sneakers stuck out against an array of formal attire, full suits and skullcaps donned by congregants heading to and from any of the three synagogues within several blocks of my apartment. The runners were out in full force, doing their final prep runs for the NYC marathon, but the faithful walked up and down Columbus Avenue with determinedly slow gaits. They were walking and relaxing, simultaneously moving and resting with Sabbatarian poise. One family in particular struck me. Donning a prayer shawl like a Superman cape, a father smiled while he held his children’s hands as they tugged away, tryong to run around. His wife looked in shop windows meandering aimlessly around her family in orbit.

What occurred to me was not so much how this Saturday morning was similar to Waugh’s Sunday morning, but how different it was. There seems something effortless and appropriate about the ways in which Oxford’s Anglo-Catholics meander around Gothic revival buildings, faux-Romanesque churches and attending liturgies that painstakingly evoke the Byzantine. The sights of Lincoln Center, shops like Theory, William Sonoma, blend in seamlessly with the modernist synagogues, Manhattan’s metallic acknowledgements of the present – a contrast to Oxford’s stone shrines of Anglo-Saxon ancestor worship.

The next day I met Danny’s father.

There were many synagogues in Williamsburg. Each Hasidic sect had its own house of worship – shtibblach, they were called most of them badly lighted, musty rooms, with benches or chairs crowded together and with windows that seemed always to be closed. There were also those synagogues in which Jews who were not Hasidim worshiped. The synagogue where my father and I prayed had once been a large grocery store. It stood on Lee Avenue, and though the bottom half of its window was curtained off, the sun shone in through the uncurtained portion of the glass, and I loved to sit there on a Shabbat morning, with the gold of the sun on the leaves of my prayer book and pray. 

That said, as I write this, another passage comes to mind: a Saturday morning in Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. Though the English translation isn’t perhaps so florid as Waugh’s magnum opus, the same sense of serenity is there, almost inviting you to be calm. Both passages precede propitious plot points, as the narrators are soon to meet the fateful figures who will transform their lives: Charles Ryder is to meet his future best friend Sebastian, and Reuven Malter is meet his best friend’s father, a rather severe Rabbi with sensibilities bordering on the medieval. These two excerpts seem to reflect a reality in how we remember the big things in life; the magnanimous alters our perceptions of the events preceding, making them insignificant, prophetic, preparatory – well, anything really.

In thinking on the picture-perfect serenity around me, about Waugh and Potok, I was also mentally going through some pieces I’m working on at the harpsichord. A couple of preludes and fugues from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are in the works and I admit I’ve been worrying about how the two movements should relate to one another in both sets. The preludes are so beautiful but the extent of musical development in most of them is very slight – they’re seemingly sedentary, aimless. Then again, there are no real rules for a prelude. They’re essentially improvisatory works, originally intending to imitate the sound of a lutenist tuning his instrument up by playing around with some chords. Unsurprisingly, Bach took it all to the umpteenth level. For the listener, it’s as if they’re texture pieces in a gallery, subtly exploring the tuning and depths of color of the instrument. For the harpsichordist, they’re still-life pieces, capturing a particular mode in which the instrument can sound, encapsulating it for a couple of minutes or even less.

What’s hard about them is that their beauty and poise enable them to stand alone. Like much of Waugh’s prose, one could simply be happy to listen to Bach musically describe all that he sees, as if development, plot, intrigue are not of the essence. Again, you’re kind of in the moment and digging it – it’s a good place to be. 

At the same time, getting caught up in it all, you can start to get indulgent. It’s easy to lose the simplicity the more you think about what’s around you, perhaps unwilling to simply get on with it and forge ahead. The B Major Prelude (BWV 892) feels particularly tough in this respect; there’s a total incessancy to the rhythm, always the same while the notes scope out the full range of the keyboard. Harpsichordists create sound worlds by holding and lifting certain notes as they wish, in order to form harmonies out of a row of tones in order to make things sound smooth. It gets harder and harder when you encounter a piece where the texture is similar throughout. What do you prioritize? Is there meant to be a climax? A point of tension? One can forget that something is coming later.

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The E-flat minor Prelude (BWV 853) is difficult as well as there is essentially only one harmony in every measure, in a piece that is already very slow. There are trills and ornaments all over the place, and it’s easy to spend ages trying to tease out filigree when an inherent placidity is in fact the very charm of the piece. If you’re not careful, it can start to plod, instead of drift.

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The fugues are a different matter. They’re about direction, plot, order, hierarchy, form – all the good stuff that counterpoint brings to the table. For the listener, a fugue’s material makes a prelude make sense in retrospect. But the way they are linked is different for different people: you could see it as the way the chords and harmonies relate between the prelude and the fugue, or you can look for quotations of melodies, tunes, faint echoes, etc. On the other hand you can look at it all as a charming coincidence or chance relationship; the fact that Bach remains in B Major for the both prelude and fugue doesn’t mean they were written at the same time. They could be separate dreamworlds drawn together by the fact they’ve simply been played in close proximity with each another. It’s funny, because from the musician’s standpoint, we tend to think of the Well-Tempered Clavier as “the” work that explores how humans hear harmonies in temperament. But I can’t but think of them as miniature though experiments in how humans remember material in real time, how they reflect, how they process, how they themselves are tempered.

Nothing so romantic as a fugal exposition occurred after my walk around the Upper West Side. I got coffee, went for a run, bought some groceries, and packed up my harp to head to a gig in New Jersey. My earphones were in all day, gently working through Richard Egarr’s recording of the Well-Tempered Clavier. I suppose it was nice that nothing huge was going on – I got to ruminate on Bach and Waugh, after all.

But as I arrive at the gig, I pull my earphones out and reality sets in. I have to unload a harp in a heatwave. The union rep won’t let me wheel the instrument on stage. He takes over. He drops it. I take over. I uncover it, and there’s a broken string. The light on my music stand doesn’t work. I get a text that my grandmother has died. The food for the orchestra is once again cold greasy pizza. There’s an obnoxious violist who insists on talking about how many followers he has on Twitter and Youtube. There’s a flautist who won’t shut up. An oboist is practicing inside the green room. My phone won’t stop buzzing with Facebook messages of condolence and now it’s running low on battery. I can’t find my felt pick for the glissandos. The skin on my right thumb is peeling. Where did I put my tuning key?

By this point, I’m trying to stay focused on the gig, but I’m obviously thinking about my grandmother, Gwen. It’s ironic; she was big on staying focused and being productive at all times. It sounds like a nice thing to say, but in reality it was a fault. When I was eight, I went to stay with her for two weeks in the summer. We didn’t bake cookies (she was a lousy cook) or knit or sew. We spent two hours a day doing chemistry and another two doing Latin. Then I was allowed to practice… with a timer on the piano… to ensure I put in a full two hours.

I should mention that the two weeks with Gwen were in fact a punishment levelled on me by my parents – it was like getting grounded, but way more bourgeois. It’s what I  imagine it would be like to be sent off to one or another of the grand-mère’s in Nabokov’s Ada. I had to go spend 15 days with my biochemist grandmother in a seven bedroom late Victorian house, learning declensions and chemical bonds in a living room decorated with Chagall, Dali, Miró and some students of Degas. There was a clavichord in the far corner, next to a Style 11 Lyon & Healy harp. A Gagliano violin sat in a case underneath the piano. Near the window there was a Welsh bible, her only family heirloom. On the coffee table sat an enormous book of plainsong chant, printed and bound somewhere in post-Revolution France.

 

There was a computer in my uncle’s old bedroom, but it was loaded up with math and logic games to help prepare me for the SAT (at the age of eight). I could watch TV downstairs, so long as it was the news, Jeopardy or VCR tapes of Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts. Outings were made to either to the art museum or the science museum only, with the exception of the occasional treat of visiting an academic library with a mummy named Lucy on display (I suppose I was a rather morbid child).

If I said I hated it, I’d be lying. My grandmother was the matriarch of a family of culture vultures and weirdos, and she knew I was no different. That said, one never got bored in her house. Ever. She could be a little intense sometimes, so avoiding her became a strategy on occasion if you wanted some peace. But at the points when she was unavoidable and she could tell I was unoccupied, she didn’t hand me a mop or a broom or read me a story. She always handed me the same yellow copy the Well-Tempered Clavier, the single volume of music that was on her piano ever since I could remember.

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She was by no means a professional musician or even a talented amateur. From the minute I was born, my mother banned her from even singing around me lest it potentially ruin my innate perfect pitch (did I mention my family is neurotic?). But she was the first person to open up the Well-Tempered Clavier and make me learn the C-Major Prelude. From there I learned my first fugue, learning how different voices weaved in and out of one another, bickering and arguing like me and my sister. When I had mastered the C Major on the piano, she sent me to her clavichord in the living room, and encouraged me to try it there. The case was dark and simple, but when you opened it up, you saw a beautiful wood carving of Prague on the inside of the lid, an extra source of inspiration as I tried to keep the instrument from sounding like a muffled mandolin. After that, she’d send me to the harp to try it out. Through all of this she’d sit at the opposite end of the room in “her” armchair and listen with her eyes closed. If she had headache or her joints were bothering her, a hot water bottle and quiet recital by her grandson on the living room clavichord tended to help.

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Among the most formative experiences in my upbringing, the times spent in Gwen’s presence and care remain some of the most important. It was at her house that my interest in Bach began and where I got the itch for old instruments. I also got to read a ton, picking off my mother’s and uncle’s old books from her shelves. Sitting on a really ugly red chinoiserie sofa chair (her taste in furniture was admittedly dubious) I read my first C.S. Lewis when I was five. At eight it was Dickens. Age 11, Harriet Beacher Stowe. Age 14, Chaim Potok. Age 15, Evelyn Waugh. Her living room was a menagerie of art, books and instruments – a literal playground for me as a kid. My brain was always in overdrive at her house and she seemingly did all she could to engage all my faculties (except maybe my taste buds).

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Born in 1925, Gwendolyn Parker McClure was child of the Great Depression. Her family moved north from Alabama to Louisville for better economic prospects not long after her little brother died of influenza. She earned a master’s degree in biochemistry in an era when not many women pursued academia, especially in the sciences, and especially in the South. She enrolled in law school with her husband G.D. instead of going on a honeymoon. She lobbied outside a mayor’s office for months on end to get funding for one the first public arts high schools in the United States. She collected art, instruments, and moral causes, from working to expand educational opportunities in her city, to secretly aiding religious dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. She was always ready to host at the drop of the hat, often seen wearing pearls and hand tailored suits from Hong Kong at 2AM – her nickname amongst family friends was “Queen Mum.”

Again, her cooking sucked (I can’t stress this enough). She could be really passive aggressive, taking an hour to drink a cup of coffee at her kitchen table at one point when I visited her. The drive for her entire family to succeed came with baggage worthy of Salinger short story or a Wes Anderson film (fear not, the family soap opera she wrought will continue long after her death). She was a Republican, and a staunch one. She was a Southern Baptist, expressing continual skepticism that I would be working for “pseudo-Papists,” her endearing term for Episcopalians (I won’t go into what she had to say about Catholics). She was bizarre. But then again, so am I. I inherited that from her, along with my name.

In looking around me, I constantly see books I’ve read, art I’ve looked at and music I’ve played. My mind often feels like my grandmother’s living room; everything is always all there, interconnected, intense and a little screwed up. My Saturday morning walk felt like a weirdly appropriate prelude to the news of Gwen’s death. Whether it was mere coincidence that my mind drifted back to Waugh this morning, and that Gwen should die the week I started work on the Well-Tempered Clavier again, I can’t really say. It all feels a little strange. What I am sure of is that for more reasons than I can count, my lovely morning on the Upper West Side wouldn’t have possible without her.

 

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