Debussy (again)

for Kendall Briggs

In the last year, I’ve once again attempted to “leave” New York. And yet I’m sat on the corner of Waverly and Gay in the West Village, writing in exactly the same spot where this slightly disastrous blog began. My harp lives on the Upper West Side (as harps are fairly easy to source in Paris), my stuff lives in a storage unit in Brooklyn, I pay rent in Paris. My billing address for my online subscriptions seems to alternate between three or four legal addresses I’ve had in the last 5 years. My life is scattered, chaotic and I increasingly answer the question “where do you live?” with the honest answer “I don’t know.”

What I do know is that I’ve “checked out” of New York to a certain degree, or rather I’ve come to experience my old haunts without any feelings of baggage. I stood on the corner of 72nd and Columbus for a while today (where I’d lived with an ex) and I struggled to find those emotions which had made even going back there so hard once upon a time. I noticed which businesses had changed, which dogs were the same, which of their owners had gained weight. I looked into my old office on West 69th Street and I was happy to see that it was no longer mine. There was different art on the walls, better lighting and a new inhabitant (an old colleague in fact).

I’ve been told in times past that such feelings are a result of age, and that the process of returning becomes easier and more lighthearted. “Checking out” isn’t giving up; it’s resigning oneself to the reality of change and the inability to control where life goes, and learning to enjoy where it takes you in the process. The twists and turns, be they mundane/unnoticeable or unexpected/jarring are increasingly navigated with poise, ease and a realization that they are what makes life interesting.

If there’s any way in which I’ve checked back in, it’s returning to a place where I see life reflected in music. The personal upheavals of Covid were such that I intentionally insulated my musicianship from my life experience, trying to avoid seeing metaphors in my music making or transplanting my own issues into a practice session or a collaboration. Everything was too uncertain, so I gave up trying for a while. I’m glad to say that such has changed as I’ve started teaching again, attempting to find ways to communicate to students about how minutiae and minuscule changes in a piece of music are not to be overlooked, but to be devoured as they are breadcrumbs left behind by composers we’ll never have the chance to meet.

In a recent masterclass, a student played a transcription of Debussy’s En bateau from the Petite Suite. Everything was more or less in place: fluid technique, an even sound, a sense of sweep in some of the gestures. What lacked was a sense of direction – or rather, a demonstration of constant wavering between stasis and motion which gives the sense that one is in a boat, adrift and subtly out of control. One might call it the absence of direction.

As much as any teacher will try to avoid it, the opening bars of a piece become the obsession point in a masterclass, and I’ll own up to not working with the student on much else. Debussy gives us the Barcarolle arpeggio in G major, but it stops in midair. What next? It repeats in the next bar in the relative minor, with the melody line leading the listener into a reiteration of the first bar back in G major before heading back to e minor for another go. How many times is he gonna do this? There is some relief, as we hear a D in both the melody and the bass – a dominant chord, finally… except that it’s a D minor chord which repeats itself not once, twice or even three times, but FOUR times before giving way to a modulation to C major.

The piece is in G major, but that key relationship between D major and G major has not yet been exhibited at all, as not a single chord has included that absolutely essential F-sharp which should resolve to a G. It is in C major that we are given that initial satisfaction, the point at which we also hear that barcarolle arpeggio go and and then come back down again, reinforced by a plagal cadence (indeed, more F natural in a piece in G major) after.

Bar 12, the F chord becomes an F-sharp diminished chord. There’s hope. Might G major’s rightful place might be yet established? Nope. That F-sharp becomes a dominant in disguise and we are treated to four soupy bars of B major, which trail off into literal nothingness.

A tertiary relation drags us back to G major and the material from the beginning rears its head again. Or does it? The melody is now in thirds. And that E minor chord now has an ugly D-sharp in it, which nevertheless gives way to a Lydian C major, though a little earlier than before. At last, at bar 23, Debussy gives us what we want: D major and G major harmonies. An A minor seven chord gives us a lovely modal secondary dominant, and a C natural to connect to a D Major 7 chord – but with a melody in the bass to almost give us what we want: a perfect cadence.

The more I’ve been teaching, the less I’ve become focused on dealing with students’ hands, their tone or their “sound” (whatever that means). Instead I’ve become obsessive with trying to show students that the infinite details left behind by composers, the false returns, allusions to memory and constant denial of the expected isn’t for nought: all of these infuriating lost illusions are the very building blocks for drawing an audience in. They are in fact gifts which composers give performers to hold audiences in the palm of their hand and transport listeners out of themselves, their own lives and indeed, their own expectations.

Once identified, these subtle details pose the questions that we have to answer. What speed? How do we suspend the ideas in midair? How do we breathe on an instrument that resonates into infinity? How do we pose the questions to the audience that only we can solve?

Seeing beyond the score also comes with age and experience. The finger patterns, the anxiety over accuracy and dogged attention to making things as black and white as they appear on the page isn’t just unappealing, but rather simply impossible. We also learn that when we sit down to play, the slight human variations in volume, warmth or depth have to be accounted for, welcomed and responded to. Perhaps a chord was played too deeply. How can you compensate for it in the moment? How can you go with the flow and recalibrate?

I admit to loving the overwhelmed looks I receive from students, as perhaps I haven’t yet recovered from the 15 years of studies I undertook with Ur-pedagogues who handed me fingerings, tempos, phony aural traditions and a sense of authority which aimed to instill competency, though little more. One teacher assured me we ought to see a work from “Debussy’s standpoint,” which in fact meant just using a fingering that she’d been handed by her own teacher and maintaining a metronomic pulse. I asked her jokingly if I could have Debussy’s mobile number and ask him myself, as she appeared to know him quite well. (She didn’t laugh. The lesson ended early.)

Of course, students have to be shown standards, but what of the standards of giving students a glimpse as to how they will have to make the decisions for themselves? What of the reality that once we’re out of school, we’re on our own (thankfully) on the water, be it on the sea or up shit creek without a paddle? That our technique has to keep with it? And our tone? And our sound? What of the glorious and exhilarating relief that we all feel when we return to a piece years to find that it’s different, charming, and even liberating to play? And what of the utter terror they will face in looking at a student one day and telling them that making decisions will be harder than any one piece they master at school?


The downside of a last minute flight (and a cheap one, no less) is the possibility of an awkward layover. In my case, instead of running to catch a connection, I found myself with 9 hours to spare in Munich. Before meeting up with my friend Groble (fellow Obie, who I hadn’t seen since the before times), I made the mistake of wandering through Munich in the heat of the day. (Note: I’ve only ever been to Munich in the summer and yet am surprised each and every time about how hot it is.) And so I headed somewhere with air-conditioning and a lack of people.

The Glyptothek is notably austere, with brick and stone walls which complement the sculptures, almost all of which are notably white, without an ounce of color left on them at all. Once there were 19th Century frescoes as commissioned by Ludwig I, but they didn’t survive the Second World War (and indeed, the museum was originally built with marble before it was bombed). Likewise there were once objects from the Near East, but they were moved into the Egyptian Museum across the square.

The experience is dramatic, as the sculptures are elevated out of their context into a fantasy of antiquity. The erotic Barberini Faun sits in a spotlight when one enters, but there is almost nothing around. The tightening of the muscles, the ecstasy of the body is a pose, frozen, without any implication of movement. The sculptures from the Temple of Aegina are raised up off the ground, but they are still too close to the human eye. It’s impossible to take them in all at once, except from a side angle. If you face the front, one is confronted by a certain lack of refinement that is a matter of warped perspective. A more distant proximity would allow the eye to see all the figures at once as the neck strains to point the face upwards. Walk further, and there is the room of Alexander the Great surrounded by the busts of Plato, Aristotle and the Homer, presented as prophets attending the arrival of Hellenic and Classical cultures’ culmination.

History books remind me over and over that sculptors were not artists, but rather artisans, and that sculptures were functional objects. It’s fitting then that the sculptures continue to serve a purpose in a curatorial model, albeit it to whitewash the past. The museum’s present tabula rasa is likely preferable to previous curatorial models. There are no active comparisons between the Greeks and ordinary everyday Aryans as there were in the Third Reich, nor active comparisons between the athletes of the present and the past. One could argue that the current pretense of presenting an historical overview is relatively benign (after all, the bar is low). But I’m struck by the contrast with the archaeological collections I saw just days before in Greece, which focused primarily on objects from Macedonia. Visceral poses, a panoply of color and a shitload of gold are what characterize the Macedonian visual landscape, as well as the collection of objects from the East (with which to adorn their own houses, temples and public spaces, regardless of their original context, naturally). The closer one gets to the sites of provenance of an artifact, the more one’s preconceptions of its past are naturally challenged.

Further north, the Alte Pinakothek possesses an enormous collection of Old German Masters. If you’re a Grünewald or Cranach fan, it’s a point of pilgrimage as one can get to see pieces like the Saint Erasmus and Saint Maurice. I can’t get over that you can see Erasmus’ entrails wrapped around the wooden instrument in his right arm, a teaser as to his martyrdom in which he was disemboweled. The racial differential between the two figures is also striking (as Maurice is black, being the leader of a Theban Legion under Emperor Diocletian) and offers a window into the history of a black diaspora in Europe which predates modern colonialism. Of course, once upon time, the painting was considered too controversial and removed from display under the Third Reich (though interestingly, without any public comment) as Grünewald had amassed a cult following as a national symbol from since the era of the Franco-Prussian War. (For instance, upon the capture of Alsace, the Isenheim Altarpiece was promptly removed from Colmar and taken to Munich for renovation and installation. It was there that that wounded soldiers would come not just to witness the famously disfigured body of Christ, but in fact venerate the painting, with priests holding masses in front of it.)

The faces of figures in many of the Old German Masters are not particularly artful, as more attention is paid to the symbols in the painting, the musculature of an arm or a leg, and color used to create stark contrasts of light and shade. In Hans Baldung’s Nativity, the round plain faces of Mary and Joseph are contrasted by dramatic gazes of the cow and the ass. At the bottom of the scene, white light emerges from the manger casting shadows around crèche. The full moon offers no light at all, and but is the same shade of crystal white as the baby’s luminescence and that of the angel in the background, illuminating a heard of sheep with their shepherd.

A nice layover, yes, though too short. There was an extension, but only due to a flight cancellation necessitating stop overnight at a Marriott near the train station. It gave me some time to do some reading on some fairly interesting sites:

Osios David

for Egonne

I am vacationing in Thessaloniki, which in all honesty can hardly be described as a tourist destination. A friend of mine was back visiting his family, and he wrote to me to offer a few days’ respite in the Balkans. Airline miles are a wonderful thing, and so here I am, in an ugly city with a fascinating history.

A few art deco structures are left, though largely overshadowed by hideous apartment buildings with exposed wiring dating from the 1950s post-war housing crisis. Ottoman neoclassical mansions and administrative buildings are around, their gardens unkept and paint peeling. What few buildings are left from either the Roman or Byzantine administrations are largely in ruins, or remarkably austere in the successive changing of hands between religious groups. The Rotunda of Galerius feels like a mausoleum, yet has the seeming emptiness of a mosque, as well as echoes of its use as a church as exercises in the removal of plaster reveal stunning fragments of frescoes. (But alas, only fragments.)

Situated halfway between Venice and Constantinople, the city has a logistical convenience that has repeatedly been its downfall. Sacked by the Venetians, then the Ottomans, destroyed by fire, decimated by the Nazis, the city is successively built on its own ruins. The walls of Theodosius look like the painted desert in the American Southwest, where successive periods of history can be seen in the materials used to refortify the center of the town. Marble from antiquity supports disorganized layers of stone and brick, the inconsistencies leaving crevices where fig branches emerge.

And so, what few artifacts that remain intact appear all the more astonishing. Walking into the Church of Osios David, my friend showed me a mosaic of the Vision of Ezekiel. The mosaic is famously in the shape of an eye, with the Christ Emmanuel sat in the Iris. He is neither child nor priest, but an adult, though notably without a beard. He’s hard to recognize as first as he’s sitting on a rainbow, hand raised in salutation. Habakkuk looks on thoughtfully and Ezekiel astonished, dichotomizing the rational and emotive responses to the sight of the Christ. The Iris is supported by Cherubim in guise of peacock feathers, from which emerge the four creatures described in Ezekiel’s vision: a lion, a cow, an eagle and an angel, each bearing a red book, studded with jewels. The ends of their bodies can be seen in the Iris, though in a lighter shade and out of focus. The rainbow is not a symbol of covenant, but rather an indicator that Christ is encased in a piece of glass – that “terrible crystal” through which light refracts. And yet there is none of Ezekiel’s fire or cataclysm: no spinning orbs, no aura of terror. Ezekiel seems to sit in a rock before a quarry (latomio), with a city in the background – perhaps that of the neighborhood of Ano Poli, where the Monastery of Latoumou sits up the hill from Osios David. Habbakuk sits alone on a mountain, foreshadowing the arrival of Byzantine monasticism. Emmanuel is not in linen, but plain, imperial clothes.

Down the hill, the museums of archaeology and Byzantine Culture exhibit other fluid passages from Ptolemaic inheritance into Christian practice. The cults of Isis and Osiris hover in the tombs of the early Christians, who continued to be buried with coins on their eyes and ornaments on their ears, beckoning their prayers to be heeded by the guards of the afterlife.

Religion remains an economy here. Driving from Thessaloniki out to the beaches of Halkidiki and onto Mount Athos, one can buy an ikon at a supermarket while waiting for a coffee. Further up the road, one can purchase a small prefab chapel while shopping for a clay bbq pit. (They’re made by the same guy.) And yet there are almost no mosques, and virtually no trace the Jewish community that formed the city’s majority until the 20th century. It has become emblematic of the modern nation state, an institution at odds with the Mediterranean’s characteristic diversity seen in its port cities.

I’m a bookworm, but there is no substitution for seeing a different place up close and in person. For all I’ve learned, I feel all the more ignorant and am itching to return to the region as soon as possible.

And yet, travel is now a part of my life as I’m entering a new period of itinerancy and over the next year or so. I’ve started picking up travel journals which I’ve neglected to read, in hopes that it might remind me to keep my eyes peeled when I’m on the road. This week, I finally started with Goethe’s account of his travels to Italy, in which time he wrote about things other people seemingly cared little about and visited places and sites overlooked.

And, of course, his first fellow traveler (albeit for a brief period) is none other than a harpist and his daughter.

“We shared another cheerful prospect as well : she assured me we would have fair weather, because she carried a barometer with her- her harp. When the treble string went sharp it was a sign of good weather, and this had happened today. I accepted the good omen and we parted gaily, hoping to meet again soon.”


A few months ago, I released another album. Nico Muhly and Alice Goodman’s The Street constitutes the bulk of the two disc set, being a large scale for work for spoken word, solo harp and chant. Unsurprisingly, much of the promotion for the album has been spent talking about how that work came about, why King’s College, Cambridge commissioned it and why it’s important as both a work of sacred music and (hopefully) a new staple in the solo harp repertoire.

What remains to be discussed is what Bach’s Second Partita in C Minor (BWV 826) is doing on the first disc. Truth be told, the label at King’s College, Cambridge wanted more Bach, as the Goldberg Variations has been doing very well on streaming platforms. (Indeed, thanks to meditation, concentration and relaxation playlists, the work lives up to story of its soporific progeny and enjoyed some 4 million streams in 2022 on Spotify alone.) So… which Bach?

Fortunately, there wasn’t any question in my mind about what I wanted to play. Like the Goldbergs, it was was a work I had learned as a precocious teenaged pianist, having been borderline obsessed Martha Argerich’s live recording from the Concertgebouw. Her articulation and drive were totally infectious and fascinating to me, and for a long it was the definitive sound of Bach in my ears. (Not to mention the fact that the energy only increases throughout the rest of the program, including a hair raising performance of some Ginastera.)

Fast forward to my time at Juilliard, I took the partita up to see how I might push myself technically, but also how I might incorporate all the historical performances ticks and “-isms” I had imbibed in the historical performance program at Oberlin. I got kick out of playing with boomy resonance of my instrument to create swells of sound, desynchronizing melodies and bass lines to make the Andante and Sarabande sound like the gentle chaos that one gets in chamber music, and phrasing rhetorically, as if there individual syllables under each note, turning tunes into sentences. Inevitably, I ran into the fact that the harp, while blessed with extreme sensitivity to touch, isn’t cut out for Martha’s tempi. It just can’t reliably emulate the level of articulation or speed we expect to hear from the harpsichord, pianos and other Apollonian typewriters. This is to say: I was having fun, but not quite sure where I might find aesthetic justification for taking one of my favorite pieces to the harp.

True friends are those who you can go without seeing and pick up where you left off. I’m lucky that I’ve had a continuous messaging thread with one friend since we were teenagers. A fellow Cambridge organ scholar (who now has a successful career as an historical keyboardist in Switzerland) and fellow nerd, he has been traditionally reliable to come up with (1) amusing Guardian/Sun articles about the pets and consumption trends of Central Asian dictators and (2) fun facts about early music. In one of our Facebook messenger exchanges (I in the Juilliard harp studio, he somewhere in Stuttgart), we were discussing outrageous examples of continuo performance practices which would be deemed laughable today. These days, we tend to prefer clean and neat contrapuntal playing (which we have sources for), but every so often we see examples where keyboardists went to town and suggest students play as many as ten notes at a time while (making for a wildly muddy performance).

My friend rightly noted, “Playing like this would be a great way to never get invited to play anywhere for a second time. Next thing, I receive another photo (see below). “This is by Müthel, Bach’s last student (sort of).”

If you know what you’re looking at, you’ll know it’s a tad outrageous. Pictured above is what I was sent: an highly ornamented manuscript of the Sinfonia from 1749, the scribe’s hand being that of Johann Gottfried Müthel, a pupil of Bach’s at the very end of his life. (Below you can see the handwritten version next to the the “original” published edition in 1731. You’ll notice just how much more real estate is taken up on a page by Müthel’s handwritten edition.)

Bach’s original from 1727
Müthel’s essay in the use of appoggiatura, 1749

I had known about this source from my time at Oberlin, but at the time had been more invested in the source which precedes it in Müthel’s hand: another re-ornamentation, that of the Sarabande from Partita V in G (BWV 829).

Bach’s published edition from 1731
Müthel’s mordent party, 1749

At least with BWV 826, the ornamentation is generally regarded to fall flat on the harpsichord, which is perhaps why I wasn’t able to find a recording. (The necessity to lift fingers out of the keys causes strings to be dampened, and so all the lush harmonies which cause the the filigree scintillate get a bit lost. At the harp, it’s not too bad, as the problem of continual resonance tends to actually work in the renditions favor.) With BWV 829 however, issues of texture are not as present. We just tend to to stay away from Müthel’s version because, well, there are many who think it’s tasteless or out of the original style of the Partitas as Bach originally published them.

Müthel’s versions tend to make us uncomfortable as they are (in all likelihood) transcriptions of performance practices undertaken by his teacher. Granted, over the last few decades, there has been increasing openness to the fact that we know Bach revisited his scores later in life to show students how to ornament or extemporize.

For instance, after Bach’s death, Jakob Adlung wrote in 1758 that Bach’s works for “violini soli senza basso, 3 sonatas and 3 Partitas, are well suited for performance at the keyboard.” This perhaps echoes Johan Friedrich Agricola’s account of Bach’s violin works from 1754, reporting that Bach “often played them on the clavichord, and added as many harmonies to them as he found necessary. (This practice is at the clavichord is confirmed by Forkel, who related that Bach “considered the clavichord to be the instrument for study and for all music played.”)

We also have the numerous examples of how Bach reused his own music and sometimes the music of others. The Violin partitas and sonatas turn up as sinfonias, organ pieces and lute pieces. Cantata movements are republished as organ solos in the Schübler Chorales. Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater turns up as a German setting of Psalm 51 (with an extra viola part, to boot).

But what we perhaps pay attention to less is the smaller, lesser known instances of revisitation or revision. Works appear in more than version, with both visible and and audible stylistic changes. The Pièce d’Orgue (BWV 572) has examples of copyists transcribing incredibly florid ornamentation some years after the work was written. The effect is scintillating, as each voice is able to distinguish itself by adding some more harmonic tension and rhythmic flare in a seemingly stately texture. It looks less like Bach, and more like the music of the French organ composers he kept in his library, with delicious names like DeGrigny, Nivers and Boyvin.

(Indeed, another source’s title page contains a credit to Jean Sébastien Bach. And at the bottom of all of the editions page, the organist is given the instruction “tournez” to turn the page.)

In BWV 831, we can see a French overture in C-minor with the normal three note patterns of anticipation that let us know that something important is about to happen.

BWV 831a in C minor

But in another version, these jumpy rhythms are cut in half. Where there were sixteenth notes, there are now thirty-second notes. The anticipations are more biting and incisive, and again more in line with the conventional practice of taking short rhythms and making them shorter. (One might also note that the second version appears in B-minor, a half step lower than C-minor, an ironic phenomenon as our modern historical performance conventions have us perform French music at A=392, and Bach at A=415.)

BWV 831

And some decades after jotting down some naughty hymn accompaniments with student Johann Ludwig Krebs (that once got him suspended from his job as a 21-year-old turn up in a students’ hands), they turn in the hands of Johann Gottlieb Preller, beautifully laid out as if they are solo works of creative genius, and not the scribbles of an unhappy adolescent from some 30 years prior.

The “original” as handed to Krebs by Bach

Of course, because In dulci jubilo is so famous, we don’t think twice about the fact that the “realization” or “expansion” we’re used to hearing every Christmas is a product of manuscripts largely written down in the late 18th-to mid 19th centuries.

A 19th-century “realization” we assume is Bach’s as notated by Preller, sometime in the 1740s.

I shan’t ramble much further. The examples abound of how Bach would play hopscotch with his own music, altering, revising it and even changing its stylistic swag. And yet, these revisions don’t get performed all too often. Or if they do, their altered states are conveniently forgotten or ignored, so as not to mess with some image in our mind of a “serious,” “organized” or “grounded” genius. To me this is slightly crazy, as the some of the most revealing documentation we possess about who Bach might have been and how plasticity might have been a core feature of his creative process.

I think this is what fascinates me most about music from the past, especially baroque music: when we play a work of Bach (or any other composer, for that matter), we often a snapshot in time, a window into his creative interests at one or another point in his life. More often than not, we tend to crystallize the more obvious historical moments, often coinciding with dates of publication or the dates when pen was first put to parchment by the master. Of course, these works change in our own lives: we age, we mature, we reinterpret, we grow. But what if a piece of music were the same in the life of a composer? How did they revisit their music? How did they change? Why?

(P.S. yes, the Sinfonia opens with some heavy breathing improv based on some juicy tunes by Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre. I have no historical justification, except that I hope it will further upset the HIP purists who send me hate-mail about playing Bach on the harp.)

Four Articles for EMA

Of course, though neglecting my blog, I have been writing elsewhere. I’ve been very pleased to be preparing pieces for Early Music America Magazine, which you can find below.

First, there is one on William Lawes’ Harp Consorts, an assortment of pieces written for harp, violin, theorbo and viol in the early 17th century. They’re beautiful, whacky and weird, but rarely done because they present any number of performance practice issues – including questions of what kind of harp we ought to use. (Read more here.)

When I first moved to New York, Bob Craft’s death was on mind of a few new acquaintances, especially those who knew and worked with him. It was only in the last few years that I came appreciate the impact he had on the scene in New York, especially in getting Gesualdo’s music into the ears of the classical music listener. Many things have changed since then, so I decided to take a crack at asking some questions about how Gesualdo’s music might be undertaken with an eye towards historical information. (Read more here.)

Next, a slightly bitchy article, but there we are. I adore playing and performing music of the past, but I fear that the term HIP has become vacuous and little more than a code for certain types of playing that have little or nothing to do with historical inquiry. In fact, in my mind, it’s become a new form of gate-keeping. (Read more here.)

And lastly, I spent a few hours on Zoom with harpsichordist Lillian Gordis, who has quite a lot to say about the experience of being a harpsichordist. (Read more here.)


for Thibault and Andrea

Seven years ago, I started this blog with the intent of writing about what I want. My confidence grew, and eventually got to the stage where I was writing pieces that other outlets wouldn’t publish. But for various, reasons, I fell off. It’s the New Year, so there’s no better time than to return to where I started by nerding out for a very select (boutique, niche, etc.) audience.

Like everyone else, I had some newfound spare time in March 2020. It was that year that I learned to read and enjoy the ability to consume dense literature without any sense of urgency or distraction. In late February, I had just finished a tour with Apollo’s Fire. Not long after we played our final concert in Chicago, the lockdowns began and I stayed put for several months, staying in the empty apartment of an old professor of mine who generously allowed me to squat. I called my roommate to pull out of my lease (which was fortunate, as her fiancé had to leave his student accommodation and move in). I had my harps, a suitcase of clothes, and only a few books: Stendhal’s Italian Chronicles, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (please chuckle at the irony), Roth’s Radetzky March and Roberto Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. The last of these would initially occupy me for nearly a month and fundamentally change how I thought about mythology and, in turn, music.

Calasso’s central thesis is simple: when taking in the cumulative sweep of Classical literature, – that is, from Hesiod right up to late Roman scholars (and even early Byzantine critics) – one sees that each fable or tale of morality is but a repetition or reference to another story. In the opening chapter, Calasso repeats the question “but how did it all begin?”

Europa is abducted by Zeus, disguised as a bull.

But how did it all begin? Golden basket in hand, she is picking flowers, as Persephone did before her, before being taken by Hades; or perhaps like Thalia, who wandered among the flowers on the mountainside, before being whisked away by Zeus disguised as an eagle; or even Creusa, who picked saffron flowers by the Acropolis before being kidnapped by Apollo.

But how did it all begin? Europa’s golden basket is a family heirloom, made by Hephaestus and granted to Libye, who passed it to Telephassa, who bequeathed it to Europa. It is embossed with a Golden bull resting on the waves. Not Zeus, but Europa’s great-grandmother Io. Not the Aegean, but the Nile.

But how did it all begin? Io was saved by Zeus. Having fled to Egypt after being transformed into a bull, Zeus finds her in Egypt. He skims lightly skims his hand over her. She becomes mortal again.

Calasso concludes: “as Europa walked down the flowery meadows near the sea, what Europa was carrying, embossed in precious metals, was her destiny. As in a piece of music, her own tune was the melodic inversion of her ancestor, Io’s. A bull would carry her off from Asia toward the continent. A bull would carry her off from Asia toward the continent that was to be called Europe, just as years before the desperate sea wandering of a young cow who had first grazed in Greek pastures was to end in Egypt with the light touch of Zeus’s hand. And one day the gift of the golden basket would be handed down to Europa. She carried it along, without thinking.” (Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony)

On and on the book goes likewise, each page containing paraphrases of the collected interpretations of mythology, from the Homeric Hymns right up to the Early Christian critics. The key point however is not that it is about classical literature, but that the revisitation of this material carries on the tradition of reinterpretation. After all, the reader is party to the knowledge of all those things which the mythical characters do not know and cannot know. We are like Argus, having many eyes, able to see each and every folly without being able to predict the fate that will befall us.

“Everything repeats itself, everything comes back again, but always with some slight twist in its meaning… And there is always some tiny territory untouched by the anthropologist’s fine-tooth comb that survives, like an archaic island, in the modern world: thus it is in antiquity we come across the emissaries of a reality that was to unfold more than two thousand years later.” (Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony)

Calasso touches on a lot of things: the philosophies of history, on the warning signs the Classics might even give us about totalitarianism, gender, sex, remorse, etc. Sadly, music is largely absent. But in this little book, I found the most fantastic blueprint for thinking about our myths about music in the theogony. And so, I started reading more and more, accessing Loeb translations online and starting with the story that musicians (especially harpists) know best: Orpheus.

Orpheus marries Eurydice, but soon after she dies, having trodden on a snake. She’s taken to Hades where Orpheus tries to fetch her. He plays the harp for Charon, and is allowed into hell. He’s allowed to take Eurydice back from Hades so long as he doesn’t look behind. (There is no Chekhov’s Gun quite like a contract meant to be broken.) He turns around, and she is lost. In grieving, he forswears women. The women of Thrace get angry, flay him alive, and tear him limb from limb.

But an amazing thing will happen to you, Orpheus: you now charm wild beasts and trees, but to women of Thrace you will seem to be sadly out of tune and they will tear your body in pieces, though even wild beasts had gladly listened to your voice. (Philostratus, Imagines 6)

As with every myth, any number of things can be latched onto in the Orpheus myth. One could speak of the symbolism of the Styx, the trope of the dead woman and the male gaze, or even the snake that killed her. But what if a key to understanding Orpheus had nothing to do with Orpheus, but with the instrument he had in his hand?

Before Orpheus, there was famously Apollo. But where did it all begin?

“Leto’s all-glorious son goes to rocky Pytho, playing upon his hollow lure, clad in divine, perfumed garments; and at the touch of the golden key his lyre sings sweet. Thence, swift as thought, he speeds from earth to Olympos, to the house of Zeus, to join the gathering of the other gods: then straightway the undying gods think only of the lyre and song, and all the Muses together, voice sweetly answering voice, hymn the unending gifts the gods enjoy and the sufferings of men.” (Homeric Hymn 3 to Pythian Apollo)

But the skill of Apollo was once put to the test. Though it is not known why, he was challenged a musical contest by the flute player Marsyas, a satyr. Apollo not only played, but sang and even turned his harp upside down. King Midas, the umpire was impressed and Marsyas forefeited both the contest and his life.

“The Satyr Marsyas, when he played the flute in rivalry against Apollo’s lyre, lost that audacious contest and, alas! His life was forfeit; for, they had agreed the one who lost should be the victor’s prey. And, as Apollo punished him, he cried, “Ah-h-h! why are you now tearing me apart? A flute has not the value of my life!” Even as he shrieked out in his agony, his living skin was ripped off from his limbs, till his whole body was a flaming wound, with nerves and veins and viscera exposed.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses 6)

Marsyas’ body would serve as an example.

And so Apollo defeated Marsyas, bound him to a tree, and turned him over to a Scythian who stripped his skin off him limb by limb. He gave the rest of his body for burial to his pupil Olympus. From his blood the river Marsyas took its name. (Pseudo-Hyginus, Fabulae 165)

But where did it all begin? His harp came to him via Hermes, who stole two cattle from Apollo and flayed them alive. In his anger, Apollo tried to punish Hermes.

“Apollo twisted strong withes with his hands meaning to bind Hermes with firm bands; but the bands would not hold him, and the withes of osier fell far from him and began to grow at once from the ground beneath their feet in that very place. And intertwining with one another, they quickly grew and covered all the wild-roving cattle by the will of thievish Hermes, so that Apollo was astonished as he gazed.” (Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes)

It is Argus who ameliorates. He sees Hermes’ harp on the ground, and begins to fumble on its strings to distract Apollo. The archer is entranced, plucks the strings as if it were his bow, and demands to take the harp for himself. Hermes tells him,

“ ‘…as it seems, your heart is so strongly set on playing the lyre, chant, and play upon it, and give yourself to merriment, taking this as a gift from me, and do you, my friend, bestow glory on me. Sing well with this clear-voiced companion in your hands; for you are skilled in good, well-ordered utterance.’ (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 4)

All of Apollo’s cattle are now Hermes’, in exchange for harp?

When Hermes had said this, he held out the lyre: and Phoebus Apollo took it, and readily put his shining whip in Hermes’ hand, and ordained him keeper of herds. The son of Maia received it joyfully; the glorious son of Leto, the lord far-working Apollo, took the lyre upon his left arm and tried each string with the key. Awesomely it sounded at the touch of the god, while he sang sweetly to its note.” (Homeric Hymn 4 to Hermes)

But where did it all begin? But does Apollo not know? Hermes not only had a harp, but invented it. After finding a tortoise near his dwelling in the mountains, Hermes is shocked but also delighted. It is in mirth he mutilates the animal to see what will happen.

“Living, you shall be a spell against mischievous witchcraft; but if you die, then you shall make sweetest song.’ “

“Thus speaking, he took up the tortoise in both hands and went back into the house carrying his charming toy. Then he cut off its limbs and scooped out the marrow of the mountain-tortoise with a scoop of grey iron. As a swift thought darts through the heart of a man when thronging cares haunt him, or as bright glances flash from the eye, so glorious Hermes planned both thought and deed at once. He cut stalks of reed to measure and fixed them, fastening their ends across the back and through the shell of the tortoise, and then stretched ox hide all over it by his skill. Also he put in the horns and fitted a cross-piece upon the two of them, and stretched seven strings of sheep-gut. But when he had made it he proved each string in turn with the key, as he held the lovely thing. At the touch of his hand it sounded marvelously; and, as he tried it, the God sang sweet random snatches, even as youths bandy taunts at festivals.” (Homeric Hymn to Hermes 4)

But where did it all begin? Argus picks up and saves Hermes, not knowing that Hermes will betray him. Argus (of 100 eyes) appointed by Hera to kidnap and guard Io, who was transformed into a heifer when Zeus found affection in her.

Yielding obedience to such prophetic utterances of Apollo, he drove me away and barred me from his house, against his will and mine; but the constraint of Zeus forced him to act by necessity. Immediately my form and mind were distorted, and with horns, as you see, upon my forehead, stung by a sharp-fanged gadfly I rushed with frantic bounds to Kerkhnea’s sweet stream and Lerna’s spring. But Argos, the earth-born herdsman, untempered in his rage, pursued me peering with his many eyes upon my steps. A sudden death robbed him of life unexpectedly; while I, still tormented by the gadfly, am driven on from land to land before the heaven-sent plague.

“Oh, oh! Aah! Aah! A gadfly, phantom of earth-born Argos is stinging me again! Keep him away, O Earth! I am fearful when I behold that myriad-eyed herdsman. He travels onward with his crafty gaze upon me; not even in death does the earth conceal him, but passing from the shades he hounds me, the forlorn one, and drives me famished along the sands of the seashore. The waxen pipe drones forth in accompaniment a clear-sounding slumberous strain. Alas, alas! Where is my far-roaming wandering course taking me? . . . I cannot discern how to escape my sufferings.” (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound)

Fearing for Io’s life, Zeus sends Hermes to fetch her. Hermes lulls Argos to sleep with his flute and voice and kills him.

So Hermes joined him, and with many a tale he stayed the passing hours and on his reeds played soft refrains to lull the watching eyes. But Argus fought to keep at bay the charms of slumber and, though many of his eyes were closed in sleep, still many kept their guard. Argus asked too by what means this new design the pipe of reeds, was found. Then the god began to tell the story Pan. But the story remained untold; for Hermes saw all Argus’ eyelids closed and every eye vanquished in sleep. He stopped and with his wand, his magic wand, soothed the tired resting eyes and sealed their slumber; quick then with his sword he struck off the nodding head and from the rock threw it all bloody, spattering the cliff with gore. Argus lay dead; so many eyes, so bright quenched, and all hundred shrouded in one night. (Ovid, Metamorphoses 1)

For all of Argos Panoptes’ ability to see, his ears can be deceived. After he dies, Hera takes his eyes and preserves them in the feathers of the peacock, the loud, shrill guardians whose cries cannot be ignored.

But where did it all begin? Hermes has a new flute, yes, but so did Athena once. Pausanias tells of a statue of Athena striking Marsyas for taking the flute that was to be cast away for good. For though she invented it, we know she hated it.

On flute playing: Athena for foundress and Apollon for patron, one of whom cast the flute away in disgust, and the other flayed the presumptuous flute-player, Marsyas. (Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades 2)

(After all, like Hermes’ harp, it is fashioned from slaughter.)

Minerva is said to have been the first to make pipes from deer bones and to have come to the banquet of the gods to play. Juno and Venus made fun of her because she was grey-eyed and puffed out her cheeks, so when mocked in her playing and called ugly she came to the forest of Ida to a spring, as she played she viewed herself in the water, and saw that she was rightly mocked. Because of this she threw away the pipes and vowed that whoever picked them up would be punished severely. Marsyas, a shepherd, son of Oeagrus, one of the satyrs, found them, and by practicing assiduously kept making sweeter sounds day by day, so that he challenged Apollo to play the lure in a contest with him. (Hyginus, Fabulae 165)

But where did it all begin? Athena was not the last to forfeit her instrument. Hermes gave his harp to Apollo, yes, in order to continue to search for Io. But after slaying Marsyas, Apollo would repent of the evil he had done and resign his instrument.

Hermes also introduced wrestling-schools and invented the lyre out of a tortoise-shell after the contest in skill between Apollo and Marsyas, in which ,we are told, Apollo was victorious and thereupon exacted an excessive punishment of his defeated adversary, but he afterwards repented of this and, tearing the strings from the lyre, for a time had nothing to do with its music. (Diodorus Siculus, Library 5)

Hermes lust for contest would return. It is Linus who would find the instrument, and teach it to his brother Orpheus, but also Thamyris and Heracles.

Linus who was admired because of his poetry and singing, had many pupils and three of greatest renown, Heracles, Thamyris, and Orpheus. Of these three Heracles, who was learning to play the lyre, was unable to appreciate what was taught him because of his sluggishness of soul, and once when he had been punished with rods by Linus he became violently angry and killed his teacher with a blow of the lyre.

Thamyris, however, who possessed unusual natural ability, perfected the art of music and claimed that in the excellence of song his voice was more beautiful than the voices of the Muses. Whereupon the goddesses, angered at him, took from him his gift of music and maimed the man, even as Homer also bears witness when he writes.

There met the Muses Thamyris of Thrace and made an end of his song…But him, enraged, they maimed, and from him took the gift of song divine and made him quite forget his harping. (About Orpheus, the third pupil, we shall give a detailed account when we come to treat of his deeds.) (Diodorus Siculus, Library 3)

Now, back to Orpheus. Is he really innocent? Or does his grief turn to pride? Jadedness?

But having gone down into Hades because of his wife and seeing what sort of things were there, he did not continue to worship Dionysus, because of whom he was famous, but he thought Helios to be the greatest of the gods, Helios whom he also addressed as Apollo. Rousing himself each night toward dawn and climbing the mountain called Pangaion, he would await the Sun’s rising, so that he might see it first. Therefore, Dionysus, being angry with him, sent the Bassarides, as Aeschylus the tragedian says; they tore him apart and scattered the limbs. (Homer, Illiad)

Did he not learn from the example of Pentheus, who likewise refused to worship Dionysus, and was ripped apart by Ino and Autonoe, while his mother Agave looked on?

His mother, as priestess, began the slaughter, and fell upon him. He threw the headband from his head so that the wretched Agaue might recognize and not kill him. Touching her cheek, he said : ‘It is I, mother, your son, Pentheus, whom you bore in the house of Ekhion. Pity me, mother, and do not kill me, your child, for my sins.’

But she, foaming at the mouth and twisting her eyes all about, not thinking as she ought, was possessed by Bakkhos, and he did not persuade her. Seizing his left arm at the elbow and propping her foot against the unfortunate man’s side, she tore out his shoulder, not by her own strength, but the god gave facility to her hands. Ino began to work on the other side, tearing his flesh, while Autonoe and the whole crowd of the Bakkhai pressed on. All were making noise together, he groaning as much as he had life left in him, while they shouted in victory. One of them bore his arm, another a foot, boot and all. His ribs were stripped bare from their tearings. The whole band, hands bloodied, were playing a game of catch with Pentheus’ flesh.

His body lies in different places, part under the rugged rocks, part in the deep foliage of the woods, not easy to be sought. His miserable head, which his mother happened to take in her hands, she fixed on the end of a thyrsos and carries through the midst of Kithairon like that of a savage lion, leaving her sisters among the Mainades’ dances. She is coming inside these walls, preening herself on the ill-fated prey, calling Bakkhos her fellow hunter, her accomplice in the chase, the glorious victor–in whose service she wins a triumph of tears. (Euripides, Bacchae 990)

With each answer, a new question arises. The question “where did it all begin” asks how, but also why, over and over and over again. Stories of tragedy are foretold ahead of time, either in their own lives or the lives of ancestors.

Eventually the search stops. Both an innocent party and a guilty perpetrator are identified. Ovid identifies Marsyas’ hubris as the source for his demise, and focuses on the pain felt by those who grieved his death. Hyginus focuses on the fact that Apollo won by deception, turning his harp upside down. (Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Ovid came from wealth, whereas Hyginus was a freedman.)

And when Marsyas was departing as victor, Apollo turned his lyre over, and played the same song, which Marsyas couldn’t do with his pipes. And so Apollo defeated Marsyas, bound him to a tree, and turned him over to a Scythian who stripped his skin off him limb by limb. He gave the rest of his body for burial to his pupil Olympus. From his blood the river Marsyas took its name. (Hyginus, Fabulae 5)

Indeed, the image of his innocence has endured. For Plato, it is Marsyas to whom Socrates is compared.

The way I shall take, gentlemen, in my praise of Socrates, is by similitudes. Probably he will think I do this for derision; but I choose my similitude for the sake of truth, not of ridicule. For I say he is likest to the Silenus-figures that sit in the statuaries’ shops; those, I mean, which our craftsmen make with pipes or flutes in their hands: when their two halves are pulled open, they are found to contain images of gods. And I further suggest that he resembles the satyr Marsyas. Now, as to your likeness, Socrates, to these in figure, I do not suppose even you yourself will dispute it; but I have next to tell you that you are like them in every other respect. You are a fleering fellow, eh? If you will not confess it, I have witnesses at hand. Are you not a piper? Why, yes, and a far more marvellous one than the satyr. His lips indeed had power to entrance mankind by means of instruments; a thing still possible today for anyone who can pipe his tunes: for the music of Olympus’ flute belonged, I may tell you, to Marsyas his teacher. So that if anyone, whether a fine flute-player or paltry flute-girl, can but flute his tunes, they have no equal for exciting a ravishment, and will indicate by the divinity that is in them who are apt recipients of the deities and their sanctifications. You differ from him in one point only—that you produce the same effect with simple prose unaided by instruments. For example, when we hear any other person— quite an excellent orator, perhaps—pronouncing one of the usual discourses, no one, I venture to say, cares a jot; but so soon as we hear you, or your discourses in the mouth of another,—though such person be ever so poor a speaker, and whether the hearer be a woman or a man or a youngster—we are all astounded and entranced. As for myself, gentlemen, were it not that I might appear to be absolutely tipsy, I would have affirmed on oath all the strange effects I personally have felt from his words, and still feel even now. For when I hear him I am worse than any wild fanatic; I find my heart leaping and my tears gushing forth at the sound of his speech, and I see great numbers of other people having the same experience. When I listened to Pericles and other skilled orators I thought them eloquent, but I never felt anything like this; my spirit was not left in a tumult and had not to complain of my being in the condition of a common slave: whereas the influence of our Marsyas here has often thrown me into such a state. (Plato, Symposium 215)

In reading and rereading Calasso over the last few years and obsessively pouring over Classics translations online, I feel as if I’ve started seeing Marsyas and the extended family tree of musical violence everywhere. In Bellini’s The Holy Allegory, the Virgin Mary sits under a canopy, on the top of a small set of stairs. She looks upon elderly Job and Saint Sebastian, shot with an arrow. A frieze on the side of the staircase depicts Marsyas’ death at the hands of Apollo. A cross can be seen in the distance, though it looks as if it’s but a shadow. The crucifixion is indeed implied by those stories which foretell and echo it at the same time.

I wandered the Met Museum the other day after being shown the Tudor exhibit by its curator. I didn’t get very far, as when I got into the rooms of vases, I spent an hour in total awe that all the minuscule connections in literature also appear in living, visual artifacts. Athena looms over the flute players, and Apollo over the Citharodes. Olympus is haunted by his dead lover, and Apollo by clever Hermes. Heracles’ toils are illustrated with lyre players in the foreground, at once telling his deeds with the art of his teacher Linus, who he killed in anger. There is no image without a moral. There is no harp without its violent inheritance. There is no music without memory.

As I keep reading, it’s my hope that I’ll keep sharing thoughts on what I discover. Needless to say, I’ve found some material to reinvigorate the urge to write.


This morning, on last day in Cambridge, I ran into my friend S, a physicist who flits between a Cambridge College and CERN. In the last few weeks, I’ve seen her in everything from her running gear (at her laptop) to a flowing black academic gown (swanning out of a high table in hall, having just charmed American biotechniks with wine, cheese and biting erudition). A brilliant physicist, she’s an archetypal Cambridge academic, at once able to talk gibberish about dark matter if prompted, but also about the realities of academic life in teaching undergraduates. (Among the gold nuggets from Saturday morning: “term has started and I saw all of my students this week and none of them cried.”) Seeing her every few days over the last few weeks has provided some consistent comfort, as she always has a refreshing honesty about life in the most ivory of all towers. In short, there is both tedium and joy, and slightly awkward or even uncomfortable experiences (such as encountering an undergraduate willing to be open about some personal obstacles in their path) herald growth via candor.

My encounters with S made me realize how absolutely loath I’ve been write or talk about the trenches of music making, which (I’m told) are actually interesting to quite a lot of people. In particular, I’ve been procrastinating about opening up my iPad and typing out any account of one of the most tedious processes that musicians undertake: recording. Steadfast attempts were made to post lovely photos of the harp amid the audio rig beneath fan vaulting at King’s, as if to give the notion that the technology’s encounter with late medieval architecture offered either offered inspiration or coolness. In reality, the acoustic amplifies your best attributes but is equally unforgiving of your flaws, like a bitchy gay friend who thinks it appropriate to fuse sentiments of admiration with gratuitous discussions of your personal shortcomings (naturally with little reflection of his own).

The English have a wonderful use of the word “boring,” where the definition not only encompasses sensations of inertia, but of annoyance and endlessness. Recording at King’s is boring in that sense. If there’s a noise in the instrument’s mechanism, the room amplifies it x3 and the microphones (which I think were more expensive than the harp I played) x5. A gate into the neighboring courtyard opening and closing? Make that… 20 takes of the final chord of a movement marked ppp (translation: a pretentious notation indicating that one ought to feign inaudibility, though it takes quadruple the effort of playing deafeningly loud). Inebriated undergraduate shrieking that she’s dropped her chips on the pavement? That’s a good take of a courante made that much more unusable. Add in change ringers at any number of the churches in the center of Cambridge, a birds chirping so loud that you could swear they were paid to sit outside the chapel, and the fact that the harp’s natural resonance itself requires some shutting up (in this case, by stuffing a sock between the instrument’s lowest 7 strings), the recording process is about the art of patience before it’s ever about the art of interpretative subtlety and poise.

On top of that, as you listen to takes directly after you make them, you have to keep an eye (or ear) toward what the final product will be. Repetition is also undertaken to offer a usable array of takes and tracks from which the producer can choose to create a viable digital product (which, we know, is not the same as a live concert). Yes, I’m technically performing the same music I might be on stage, but my role is very different when sat in front of the microphones. I’m one (albeit, an important one) of several elements which go into documenting what a work is. Cynics call it an artificial process, while others call it an “art form” in and of itself.

I think I’ve therapied myself into a tight corner on this one, acknowledging that recording just comes with a huge amount of embarrassment, and is a process that many people rightly see (or would be interested in seeing). Over coffee, S said it sounded like I was having to create rough draft after rough draft of an article or paper, but one which was designed to stick around in perpetuity (for an editor to appropriate into making a recording). I’m inclined to agree, as I don’t think many of us could imagine watching a writer free write or create drafts on a computer would be a pleasant experience. Indeed, if we go see drafts of a major literary work behind some exhibition glass, it’s for a chuckle or a brief moment of awe, as one encounters the absolute fucking chaos that comes in trying to codify an idea or concept into something remotely intelligible.

One of many rabbit holes I went down during the pandemic was a look at the process through which T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland was written. I had been reviving Britten’s Death of Saint Narcissus for a “virtual recital” (two words in conjunction which still make me shudder) and decided to take a closer look at why Eliot, a heterosexual from middle America, wrote a poem about death, hagiology and butt sex in seemingly fluent gay Anglo-Catholic code. (N.b. for the nerds: the poem was written more than a decade before his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism and even longer before Evelyn Waugh would use The Wasteland as a prop for faggotry and fopper in Brideshead Revisited.) Though Britten’s setting of the poem holds musical interest, the poem is comical in its employment of unsubtle metaphors to describe sodomy. The opening has some plausible deniability.

Come under the shadow of this gray rock –
Come in under the shadow of this gray rock,
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow sprawling over the sand at daybreak, or
Your shadow leaping behind the fire against the red rock:
I will show you his bloody cloth and limbs
And the gray shadow on his lips.

But the end of the poem kind of lets you know what it’s all been about.

So he became a dancer to God,
Because his flesh was in love with the burning arrows
He danced on the hot sand
Until the arrows came.
As he embraced them his white skin surrendered itself to the redness of blood, and satisfied him.
Now he is green, dry and stained
With the shadow in his mouth.

(*** Dear Reader, you’ll be pleased to know that I decided to spare everyone photos of my botched index finger which I sliced open with a brand new chef’s knife exactly 6 weeks prior to a world premiere of a concert length work for solo harp. There was blood EVERYWHERE.)

Also compare this with excerpts from a poem he wrote at the same time, The Love Song of Saint Sebastian:

I would come in a shirt of hair
I would come with a lamp in the night
And sit at the foot of your stair;
I would flog myself until I bled,
And after hour on hour of prayer
And torture and delight
Until my blood should ring the lamp
And glisten in the light…

I would come with a towel in my hand
And bend your head beneath my knees;
Your ears curl back in a certain way
Like no one’s else in all the world.
When all the world shall melt in the sun,
Melt or freeze,
I shall remember how your ears were curled.
I should for a moment linger
And follow the curve with my finger
And your head beneath my knees—
I think that at last you would understand.
There would be nothing more to say.
You would love me because I should have strangled you
And because of my infamy;
And I should love you the more because I mangled you
And because you were no longer beautiful
To anyone but me.)

In both poems, we’re invited in to witness transfiguration via sexual violence and sado-masochism. Narration carries us through each as historical characters reach their own demise via sexual ecstasy. It’s perhaps more convoluted in The Death of Saint Narcissus, where Saint Narcissus, Bishop of Jerusalem, is fused with the mythical figure Narcissus chasing after Echo, or indeed with Saint Sebastian, the beautiful Roman centurion who was tied to a tree and shot with arrows until he bled to death (for further info, please consult Oscar Wilde or your nearest homosexual with a Bachelor of Arts degree). It’s so explicit, that I’m constantly embarrassed when I read it (and I hope Eliot was as well).

The final results of all this are seen in something altogether more interesting and subtle in The Wasteland

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

It’s perhaps less creepy or less explicitly sexual, but it’s no less unsettling. What’s interesting is that instead of talking in code about elusive or esoteric saints, it discusses the figure of Christ (“the Son of Man”) and the crucifixion (“the dead three that gives no shelter), while also alluding the ministry in allegories of dust and water (I’m particularly reminded of the oft-quoted lines from the Mishnah: Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise: / and powder thyself in the dust of their feet; / and drink their words with thirstiness, though whether Pound or Eliot knew them is up in the air).

Lots of ink has been spilled as to how much the final product of The Wasteland was indeed Eliot or the heavy editorial hand of Ezra Pound. With the eventual publication of all the drafts and all the poems from which The Wasteland was drawn, many of us Eliot buffs got a peek into just how painstaking and lengthy a revision or editing process is. (
It’s of course sick and voyeuristic to go in and look at the drafts, as if to dissect a living object and rearrange its composite organs to suit your neurotic need to know how the bowels of a beautiful creature might operate. I admit my own motives had to do with Britten and Eliot’s respective places in my mind and adolescence. Britten remains the the composer’s composer for the harp, as his work with Ossian Ellis produced a body of work for the instrument, the likes of which had not been seen before or since (A Ceremony of Carols, A Birthday Hansel, Canticle V: The Death of Saint Narcissus, innumerable opera and chamber parts which make orchestral work tolerable, if no enjoyable, etc.). But towards the end of his life, he drifted towards dealing with more and more explicitly uncomfortable themes relating to sexuality. In Canticle V, there’s the reverie of sexual violence written on the heels of Death in Venice, arguably Britten’s most explicit confrontation of pederasty and homosexuality (unlike Billy Budd, Peter Grimes or Turn of the Screw, where the sexualized adolescence is shrouded in very eerie musical code). I tend not to dwell too heavily as to why, but I always thought it ironic that Britten would end up setting a bad poem written by a heterosexual to get into the nitty gritty of anal sex. Eliot’s poem also sticks out in my mind. I was originally told to buy the score by a teacher of mine in high school, and I chuckled when I opened it, because it wasn’t just gay and violent, but shrouded in Anglo-Catholic double-talk. For me this was also ironic, as Eliot was neither gay nor Anglo-Catholic when he wrote it, but a relatively fresh arrival from a Protestant family in St. Louis (though of course, he would go on to become more English than the English in his faith, politics and demeanor). Something about the meeting of the harp, religion and sex has always resonated so strongly as I spent my high school days flitting between evensongs at a cathedral and practicing the harp, dealing with the knowledge that I was an outsider at British boarding school (albeit a very friendly one) and denying my sexual orientation.

I digress. In revisiting Eliot’s drafts, some of which are crystallized in a VERY strange work for tenor and harp, I gained a bit of perspective not just on the editing process, but the freedom that comes with changing one’s mind and not permanently attaching one’s identity to the product being created. In 1921, Eliot wrote in an essay: “I see no reason why a considerable variety of verse forms may not be employed within the limits of a single poem; or why a prose writer should not vary his cadences almost indefinitely; that is a question for discretion, taste and genius to settle.” (It should be noted that he spent some six years compiling The Wasteland with Pound.)

The pandemic has been long, but in many ways offered a welcome break. The last album was recorded 6 months before the disaster struck, and this most recent one has been recorded in the early stages of my professional emergence from a long quiet period. Recording still sucks, listening to the tracks that need editing will suck, but the repetitive process of dealing with some embarrassment and confrontation of the realities of a creative process has its benefits. What doesn’t get better is the pressure for musicians NOT to talk about it. We all have to record, practice and rehearse and yet never, EVER let people know about the slog unless we’ve got a smile on. I’ll never forget the absolute most toxic instruction given to me first term at King’s College, Cambridge when I was told “you’re an outsider here. For this to work, your job is to make it look easy.” Perhaps I’m now a bit too resigned to my own shortcomings, but I can’t abide the pervasive attitude that we have to keep quiet about the processes that go into doing what we do for listeners to consume.

(Here, the writer inserts a rant about social media: TL;DR.)

***Dear Reader, coming to a graceful cadence after expression of vitriol against invisible forces is difficult, so I won’t try. I’ll bring this all to a grinding halt instead give a few life updates.

(1) I’ve moved to Cleveland for a while. I’ll be here working with Josh Levine on an upcoming residency at IRCAM in Paris, which I’m excited about.
(2) I’ve got a room in New York, thanks to a wonderful diplomat and an oncologist who let me use a spare bedroom and practice when I’m here.
(3) The US premiere of Nico Muhly’s The Street will take place on June 7 at the Spoleto Festival. Come if you can!
(4) I remain tempted to blog about the fact I nearly chopped my right hand index finger off, as my motivation to write formally/in a time consuming manner is LOW.

To Grantchester and Back

Enough time has passed since my last visit in 2019 that I have forgotten early spring mornings in Cambridge. Take your first steps out into the front court at King’s, and a gentle moisture envelops your face and hands without any biting or harshness. The chapel and the Gibbs Building glow in the early light to the point where it feels like midday. The only sounds are that of birdsong everywhere and a few bicycles creaking towards the few and faithful coffeehouses open before 8am. (Naturally, they are populated at that hour by US expats such as yours truly.)

Since my arrival, I’ve been practicing gently through the jet lag and getting acquainted with the harp I’ll be performing and recording on over the next week. Dinners and drinks are spent with Nico Muhly, a celebrity/familiar face in Cambridge. He emerges from the room next door dressed in solid black, that musician’s uniform which somehow seems innocuous in Manhattan but totally conspicuous in Cambridge. (Full disclosure: I’m not doing much better. Having been on a Club Monaco spending spree in December, my minimalist fag packing choices for this trip included patterned trousers which indicate I’m about to get cocktails in Flatiron at 3pm on a Tuesday or golfing in Boca Raton in 1973.) We imbibe and discuss what all people discuss in Cambridge: college, education, memories of development, the past. What did we read? Who taught us? What characters did we meet?

Old universities, be they Ivies or Oxbridge, have this bizarre self-conscious rigor in maintaining tradition, attracting eccentric and precocious undergraduates, who will either fly the coop into one or another greater cosmopolis or remain and become the eccentric professors who you can tell haven’t ever left. (In Cambridge, they dress in tweed, poorly tailored shirts or dull sweaters – signifiers of a chic frumpy austerity which seems never to change.) And yet, despite being in a scholastic paradise, the undergraduates one meets are hungry to know what awaits them on the other side. They inquire with alumni about how to get out, form a bridge into the real world, ditch the tweed and get into the city. It is then that one remembers that these universities, even big ones, are really very small places with a highly specific purpose: education. They put up paradoxic fronts of changelessness and authority for students, most of whom who will ultimately have an ephemeral existence here of only three or four years. The buildings, the clothes, the birds, the sunlight all remain the same, surviving the ages. It is we who are just passing through.

The other question students love to ask is “what is it like to be back?” For me, the only correct answer is “weird.” No alum is the same person as they were as an undergraduate. In my humble opinion, if misgivings arise, that’s ok. Before coming to the UK, I was driving my parent’s car through Tennessee listening to an excellent interview with writer Ocean Vuong. One thing in particular he offered resonates with me this week. He apparently tells his students that if they hate a story or an essay they wrote even month before, they should be congratulated. It means they’ve grown. Fortunately for me, feelings of regret or foreboding are fleeting, as there are a great many wonderful and beautiful things to do and see, which not many people care about unless you’ve studied here or have some romance with others have passed through. Here one can commune with any number of Saints, or at least with the imprints of their embryonic existence as students.

When I come back to King’s, I slip back into a routine. I sneak into the library, climbing two flights of stairs and grab a ladder to a row of tattered choral octavos. I grab a copy of Handel’s Israel in Egpyt and look on E.M. Forster’s signature in the front page. I peruse Messiaen scores with Sir Andrew Davis’ markings in them. I head downstairs to find volumes in the history section which (according to local lore) are filled with Salman Rushdie’s notes in the margins. I grab my running shoes and run through Coe Fen, the slightly overgrown bog past the Fitzwilliam Museum after which my old school’s favorite hymn was named (which includes the fabulous lines “Ten thousand times ten thousand sound Thy praise; but who am I?”). I work my way towards Sheep’s Green and into Grantchester. I stop at the church and sit before running past Rupert Brooke’s onetime abode before stopping again at Byron’s Pool, eavesdropping on a group of undergraduates talking about an article. Then it’s back over to Grantchester Meadow and zipping past Newnham College, reverse tracing Virginia Woolf’s treks to have tea at the Orchard. Grange Road takes me West Road. I pass the history faculty where I went to lectures and checked out stacks of books I know I’ve read but can’t remember reading. I run into the back of King’s and into front court. It’s no longer quiet, as the organ scholar is practicing Liszt at full throttle.

It’s funny that with the exception of grabbing a harp, I haven’t been back into chapel. But whenever I walk by, it seems as though the organ scholar is always practicing (which is likely the case). I know why I don’t go in to listen. I know full well the absolute sense of horror I would have felt if another ex-organ scholar came in to listen, even if for pure enjoyment. The pressure is always on. For as wonderful and easy as communing with the dead in Cambridge, somehow doing the same with the living is terrifying. Eminent alumni, musicians, Nobel prize winners and famous writers are on every corner, striking awe into the hearts of undergraduates either with their brilliance or perhaps their quickness in overturning your ideas with a simple question in a tutorial or seminar. They attend concerts too, they smile, they applaud, and yet it’s unfathomable that their critical faculties ever shut off. After all, they spend hours telling you to get your brain into high gear and to engage it as much as possible. How could it be any other way?

Ancestor worship in Cambridge is a weird and shitty way of coping with the pressures of self-expectation. When you’re a student, all those feelings get supplanted onto worries about the exams, the intellectual rigor, the teaching style (and evensongs and voluntarues), etc. As a result, it’s easy to look to the Immortals of Cambridge Yore to witness that there is life on the other side. For me, I latched onto the Bloomsbury Group, seeing a gaggle of misfits with wild ideas who somehow lifted themselves out of the self-imposed restraints that the atmosphere in the college somehow enables. In particular I devoured Forster and Woolf, being a pretentious literary queerling who had yet to figure a host of things out about what my sexuality meant (which in the end was very little, but at least the depressive book binges were good).

Back in the States, my friends will tell you that since the pandemic started, I never shut up about Hesse. As Time has passed, I’ve steered towards his novels about getting out of one’s own head, rather than the melancholy wallowing which one finds in Mrs. Dalloway or Orlando, or the strange moralistic smugness of Maurice or Howard End. At the end of one of Hesse’s more famous novels, music obsessed protagonist (The Steppenwolf) is guided through hell by Mozart, who invites him to look on at Wagner and Brahms slaving away and laugh at them as they travail in their aesthetic ideologies. It’s then you realize the entire novel is about one man’s realizations that all our chosen ancestors were not all immortal at one point, but human. Likewise, our isolated existences and identity formation see us come emerge from our shells, transforming our wolf-like, self-protective tendencies into softer, more human impulses.

“I understood it all. I understood Pablo. I understood Mozart, and somewhere behind me I heard his ghastly laughter. I knew that all the hundred thousand pieces of life’s game were in my pocket . . . I would traverse not once more, but often, the hell of my inner being. One day I would be a better hand at the game. One day I would learn how to laugh. Pablo was waiting for me, and Mozart too.”

If anything, I’ve not laughed as much at Cambridge as I have the last few days. The town’s love affair with the tradition is beautiful but comical. There is no reason that walking on a patch of grass (a privilege reserved for Dons, alumni and ducks) should have the same thrill as unprotected sex (or any other shot of adrenaline). Punting (rowing a boat in a shallow river using a 12 foot pole) is a fundamentally stupid and inefficient means of getting anywhere. That one bell-tower that peels thirteen times at noon is ridiculous. And yes, it is comical that there is in fact a phantom-like creature practicing the organ at such a volume that it can be heard in the street on a busy afternoon.

Returning is complicated but freeing, as one gets to see the other side – the peace of some unforeseen transcendence. The conditions of my return are something I actually could not have imagined a decade ago. If someone had told me undergraduate self that in a decade, I’d be (1) living splitting my time between New York and Cleveland, (2) playing the harp for a living and (3) hearing Mozart emanating from Nico’s Muhly’s room next door, I might tell you that you were out of your mind, or else wonder if its another expectation which needed achieving in order to “live up” to the magnanimous and imposing aura of my chosen university. Time heals, but laughter is the best medicine. (Try as I may, I can’t describe how great it is to be back.)

NOTE: this blog is supposed to be about music. I swear I’ll get back to it… eventually.


Reopening. New York is returning and so is my giant gay cliché of an existence. Mozart and Debussy scores in my studio pass judgment on me as I either head out to the Eagle, some mediocre (but very well-decorated) restaurant on the Lower East Side, or a movie theater on Houston Street. At night, I head to my apartment building in Murray Hill, where the stench of week-old, fetid Blue Apron boxes (addressed to str8 residents Brock, Zane or Ward) fills the lobby en route to the elevator. On the 12th floor, my housemate paints and cooks between his conferences with Google, scooting between rooms decorated with Danish(?) furniture and contemporary art painted by his friends. Meanwhile, over in my own little cave, it looks as if I shopped for all my terrible wall tapestries at Buddhas’R’Us. Pairs of running shorts and athletic socks are strewn across my floor and overpriced books I intend to read this summer are piled up on my desk. My espresso machine sits at the ready to help me find courage upon waking up in the morning.

How incredibly boring, right?

Well, not exactly. My “eureka” moment in the pandemic was realizing that the lockdowns affected my lifestyle very little, as I spent the previous year or so keeping my nose to the grindstone, investing time in things I “ought” to be doing: reading long novels, going to bed early, saving money, cooking more, etc. While things were gradually picking up in my career, the lifestyle that went along with it was distinctly pedestrian. These days, I’m making concerted effort to reconstruct my life to look the way it did when I was at Juilliard: over-scheduled, pretentious, and eager to take in as much as possible. The last step? Getting back to the blog.


The ex is jealous of Delon’s affair.

Delon is jealous of the ex’s success.

Delon falls for the ex’s daughter.

The ex tries drunkenly to torture Delon.

Delon drowns the ex.

Delon covers it up but makes a mistake or two.

Romy Schneider lies to the investigator.

 She lies to the dead ex’s daughter.

The secret is safe.

(The swimming pool is drained.)

With each plot twist in La piscine, resentment and anger are met with some effort to render silence over the dramatic noise, or at least deflection away from the turbulence. Indeed, because of mutual co-dependence, terrible and destructive behaviors are put up with and compensated for because all three adults are liable to face complete social isolation. 

The swimming pool is where all the action happens, as the water is some kind of distraction, but also the site of everyone’s ultimate demise. I can’t unsee the overwhelming influence of David Hockney in Deray’s film, evocative of Bigger Splash and later Pool with Two Figures, where the water in various Los Angeles swimming pools proves an unnerving source of ambiguity. After all, one can hide underwater, or have their vision impaired. One can cool off or exercise. One can draw life from the presence of water or die from drowning.

Who jumped into the water?

What was the first splash? Or a second?

Is there anyone else around?

I can’t see a body – how deep is that pool exactly?

If this is a self-portrait, which one is David Hockney?

Is it one or both?

Is he swimming?

Did he drown?

Who drowned him?

In this way, a gay life is one spent underwater, as the difference between swimming and drowning can be hard to perceive unless you’re the one kicking your legs. It’s not that we don’t deal with what straight people deal with, but rather in a different sequence and under less common circumstances. Body obsession isn’t vanity, but a defense mechanism. Alcohol isn’t an excess, but a crutch. Polyamory (for many of us) is not some revolutionary goal, but rather a naturally occurring phenomenon or silent compromise. Private spaces, be they bars, apps or Nicodemite circles are not so much novelties as social necessities.

We talk about the coming out of the closet, but in reality there are always several closets that lay beyond. Like the concept of a closet, the dual lives we lead are total clichés, making good David Bowie’s assertion that “all clichés are true.”And indeed, gay friendships and relationships are likiwise built on twin foundations of emotional codependency and solidarity. Wandering through Chinatown last week with my friend Isaiah, as expressed exasperation at the maintenance of not only veils of secrecy, but carpets of empathy for the men who cross our paths to sit on. Again and again, we encounter the same affairs, open relationships, competitive spirits, abusive closet cases, suicidal tendencies, all wrapped up in that overwhelming fear of a peculiar isolation that somehow cannot be made plain to straight friends. It’s not that our straight friends aren’t empathic, but rather that they can’t conceive of relationships where these issues are built in right from the start, rather than arriving at some climax. Or they can’t conceive of a world existence where the characters in La piscine are in fact rather ordinary, or indeed that the dynamics of romantic and professional jealousy playing out between four characters can just as easily boil up between two. And so perceptions of “toxicity” don’t arise from the patterns and behaviors themselves, but rather from the lack of a language about how to talk about them – that is, unless the other party in the conversation is also gay, living the same clichés.

The single most important thing I’ve done in the pandemic (apart from buying an espress machine) is recalibrate my friendships. Be they 22 and recent college grads, or gay couples around the age of 50, my primary pillars of support have little in common with me (or each other) save that they are all gay men. In them, I’ve frankly become more comfortable doing the things I want to do, being more comfortable in the constant search for metaphor in art, literature and film on days when my therapist pisses me off or I can’t face another fucking hour at the harp bench. They’ve seen me on my worst days and vice versa, and tensions even spill over into levels of anger that can only be understood by someone else conditioned by society to hate themselves on the basis of who they are attracted to. Conversely, varying levels of physical intimacy help with the reality that the prospects of loneliness never truly depart, paralyzing our sensibilities time and time again. Why? Because when you’re gay, a normal human response will invariably be seen as indicative of a loose screw, a lack of control or an invisible illness related to your sexuality. Hence despite pain, these bonds of mutual discretion are maintained, and the supposedly “toxic” behaviors to which we fall prey remain a secret, drowning in the various pools of experience which many of our friends can only dip their toes. For while all clichés are true, very few end up living them out.

Variation 2: Calvino

Taking a course from start to end, gives us a particular gratification, both in life and literature (the journey as a narrative structure) so we should ask ourselves why was the topic of “journey” so underestimated in visual arts where it appears only sporadically.” Italo Calvino

Of the various changes I’ve noticed in myself over the last few months, a reduced attention span will be the hardest to rectify upon the return of normalcy to our society. Whereas I could happily binge an entire Netflix series in March, I can now barely make it halfway through a film. Long Zoom chats with friends are turning into shorter, more frequent FaceTime calls. Cooking’s fascination and value are now rooted in expediency rather than novelty or complexities. Hours spent reading novels are now reduced to fifteen to twenty-minute skimming sessions, mostly essays, as I hope to extract witticisms and passing reflections to break up monotony (and to perhaps make up for the guilt of not deriving the same pleasure from reading that I once did).

Impatient with filching essays online and staring at the New Yorker app on my iPad, a few weeks ago I walked to my local bookstore (which, by the way, has perhaps the dumbest name ever given to a bookstore, ever: Books Are Magic. Ew.) I headed to the essay section and grabbed a few favorites, including volumes I’d left at exes’ apartments or misplaced in various moves. My friends reading this will recognize that I’m nothing if not infuriatingly predictable and cliché, but I scooped up volumes by Lydia Davis, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, Lynn Freed, Rachel Cusk, Joan Didion and Zadie Smith. (I have no regrets.)

It was useful to get reacquainted with all of them, but I especially enjoyed gleaning some wisdom once again from one of Calvino’s essays in Collection of Sand, a jumble of reviews he wrote for La Repubblica in the 1980’s. In reviewing an exhibition of historical maps at the Pompidou, he focused on the presupposition of narrative that exists when creating a geographical plan or drawing a map. While Calvino marvels at a incredibly detailed French map from the reign of Louis XIV, which painstakingly plot every tree (as it was created amidst a timber shortage), or else at a globe which was so large it had remained deconstructed for two centuries and kept in 200 boxes, the most interesting part of his essay is the consideration that maps were originally conceived as representations of journeys.

For instance, in Roman Times, maps were written on long scrolls:

Roman maps were in fact scrolls of parchment paper: today we can understand how they were designed thanks to a surviving medieval copy, the “Pautinger’s plate,” which includes the imperial road system from Spain to Turkey. The overall vision of the then known world looks horizontally flattened as a result of an anamorphic transformation. Since the map focused only on the land roads, the Mediterranean Sea was reduced to a thin horizontal wavy stripe between two wider areas (Europe and Africa), so much so that Provence and North Africa look very close to each other and so Palestine and Anatolia.

And likewise in Japan, where a 19-meter scroll from 1700 describes the journey from Tokyo to Kyoto to the traveler as he will experience it in real time:

Halfway between cartography and landscape painting,…this is a very detailed landscape in which it’s possible to see where the road surpasses high grounds, goes through groves, borders villages, overcomes rivers crossing a little arched bridge, adapts its course according to the extremely variable land conformations. The outcome is a scenery which is always pleasant for the eyes, lacking in human figures although is full of signs of real life…. The Japanese scroll invites us to identify ourselves with the invisible traveler, to cover that road bend after bend, to climb up and down the little bridges and the hills.

And even more fascinatingly:

The starting point and the arrival – that is the two cities – are not in the map: their look would have certainly fought back with the harmony of the landscape.

Taking a course from start to end, gives us a particular gratification, both in life and literature (the journey as a narrative structure) so we should ask ourselves why was the topic of “journey” so underestimated in visual arts where it appears only sporadically.

I’m inclined to agree with Calvino, insofar as when we analyze large pieces of music, we tend to take the same view “from above” that modern cartography tends to take. Much like maps take parameters from the sky (equatorial lines, polar axes, meridians, parallels, etc.) and place them onto the earth, so do musicians and scholars take standards of the eye and insert them into the ear. It’s not without its uses obviously, but there is a certain pride or vanity that can emerge from treating a large object (such as land mass or an hour-long piece of music) as an internally consistent monolith. I’m reminded of a great quote by Derrida’s and Lacan’s editor François Wahl (who, yes, may have had a vested interested in enterprises of dissection and deconstruction), who offered: “We had chance to describe the Earth just because we have projected the sky over it.” 

This has been on my mind a lot lately, for in continuing to practice the Goldbergs, and coaching myself through the kinesis of performing a work not naturally suited to the harp (“play lower on the string with the left hand there, More wrist rotation in this passage, etc.”), more questions have arisen as to what it is that binds the work together physically and aurally, or what the building blocks are that stick in the human memory.

Music theory, for all its merits, isn’t wonderful at describing the transformative experiences that help build the retrospective memory of listening to a large piece like the Goldberg Variations. We have lots of exhaustive analyses by the likes of Peter Williams and Donald Tovey Tovey, etc. which like to consider each variation on its own terms in relation to the theme. And we in turn we as interpreters are somehow expected to isolate a variation and understand its place in a super-structure by paradoxically considering its autonomy from the rest. (“ [A] variation needs to sound like x and [B] variation needs to sound like y.”) It’s as if we as musicians are expected to memorize terrain and topography with a bird’s eye view, without knowing what the depth of a valley might feel like.

With any given variation, what is its purpose, feature or memorable facet along the journey? Variation 2 is an interesting case study, as shares connective tissue with both of its neighbors in the use of miniature cells to gradually construct an increasingly strict contrapuntal frame.

Variation 1 takes the incredible mordent from the first bar of the Aria, slows it down and uses it as a rhythmic motor to propel itself forward from the get-go.

In Variation 2, that same mordent is at once diminished by a factor of two, whereby the mordent returns in the right hand, while the left hand augments it (also by a factor of two) to present the jazzy, step-wise walking bass.

That same two note cell becomes the building block for the entire canon in Variation 3.

Similarly, imitation gradually becomes stricter throughout the first three variations. Variation 1 features miniature echoes between the hands, and a scheme of implied counterpoint between three voices (though it’s written only in two voices). The bass line is separated from the tenor interpolations which imitate the right-hand melody, hinting that the invention in two voices actually has three ideas.

In Variation 2, we hear three voices, the higher two of which are in close, but not strict imitation.

But in fact, Variation 3 constitutes our first the first strict canon (though Variation 2 might have given the game away, slightly).

As if ascending a hill or witnessing a gradual accumulation of features on a journey, Variation 2 signposts that the material from Variation 1 and the theme preceding it are all eventually building up the Bach’s nerdy project of trying to have nine strict canons in his 30-fold Variation scheme. For me the fantastic thing about these elements is that they are shared between the scholar, the performer and the listener, being intelligible by sight, sound and performative kinesis.

In learning more about Japanese map scrolls, I also learned more Ukiyo-e, known in English as “The Floating World,” a form of artwork which basked in some aesthetic realism. While there are lots of intricacies and details about the history of urbanization in Japan and rise of the Shogunate, one of the most striking features of much of the art is the perspective or vantage from which drama or tension in depicted. Maps like the Tōkaidō bunken ezu (the map which Calvino references) are drawn from a side angle, but many scenes from the Ukiyo-e are drawn from above, removing the ceiling from a building where a Flemish portrait might simply remove a wall.

I can’t help but ponder if in a work like the Goldbergs, whether it’s worth flipping the perspective and considering dramatic elements and narrative from above, while analyzing the tiny structural threads one my one as they can be heard in real time. We need not remove a wall or a ceiling, so much as remove our timepieces or mobile phones – that is, stricter parameters which might inhibit more intense listening and even visual investigation of the score. Especially in this our age of mass media and reproduction, we’re under no deadline to treat each hearing as if it would be our last. Like the scroll map which can be read from either left or right, so our ears can can float between prescience and memory, whereby “to” becomes “fro” and “now” becomes a temporally nebulous “then.”

Full disclosure: I’m aware that my disorganized thoughts constitute little more than a conjecture about the journey one might take with a single variation in the Goldbergs. But such is the nature of performative interpretation, as each musician ideally guides their listener through the work in a different way. Few listeners have the score photographically memorized (and ideally would have the good manners to leave the score at home when attending a performance), but there are those who know the piece by different distinctive features. For instance, when the Aria starts up on the radio, it’s not the first note nor the second note that lets us know the Goldbergs have started, but the mordent of all mordents that lets you know that you’re potentially in for a long journey. Likewise, in the Tōkaidō bunken ezu, neither Tokyo nor Kyoto is depicted at either end of map, for it’s the path taken in the meantime that lets you know where it is you are going. The Goldbergs are like any truly meaningful journey, in that value is not assessed by some knowledge that it will end, but by the level of engagement and sensation of fulfillment one gains in that mediatory void between “start” and “finish.”