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Amazon has been recommending books to me after I purchased a copy of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I caved. A Kindle subscription has helped stave off some boredom, as my e-shelf is now flush with Death in Venice and other testaments to forms of melancholy and depression, peculiar to the Teutonic sensibilities. Hesse, Broch, Roth, Döblin, all authors obsessed with music’s metaphors for existence now help me pass the time as I avoid repetitive-strain injury from practicing six hours a day for non-existent recitals.

Musicians are stuck inside, facing the grim inessentiality of their industry and perhaps the realization that while things are hard now, they’ve been tough for a quite a while. I commend my colleagues for creating mounds of internet content that I cannot bring myself to make. I can’t help but feel as if we as musicians are somehow keeping vigil for an industry model that will not return, miring ourselves in a time warp to try to extend a present which has realistically passed. Furthermore, litanies of the musician’s woes seem to perpetuate the notion of the virus as an injustice, rather than a reality. Our line of work is artistic and enriching, but it is entertainment nonetheless, a glorified and erudite form of social masturbation.

Perhaps I should have called this blogpost “things will change, and that’s ok,” for that is what I’m trying to get at. If you’re a freelance musician in your twenties and disagree, then I’d challenge you check your bank statements and ask if you really want to turn back the clock to (1) the hours of networking and emails which ate into your practice time, (2) the shockingly low pay, and (3) the fear of losing it all in an emergency. Offset your income against your (4) tax burden, (5) student loans, and (6) cost of living, and keep thinking. It’s completely absurd to assert that the virus is an equalizer, as those most susceptible are suffering more, both physically and economically. The health emergency, however, is an illuminator, shedding light on the fact that times were not as great in the bull economy as we had led ourselves to believe.

2akU-k9xIQ0C.jpgAnd so, instead of furious emails and appeals to save my career, I wait out the transition period with reading. I’ve found particular comfort in Hermman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which undertakes the task of asking how it is that humans can upend their own mental entrenchment. It’s touchy territory, to an extent, as Hesse’s works were permitted to remain in circulation under the Third Reich, and were even promoted by the SS and younger members of the National Socialist apparatus. Upon republication of Steppenwolf in 1961, Hesse composed a forward asserting that those (without naming names) who loved his novel most also possessed the greatest misconceptions as to its message. It’s not surprising, as on the surface level protagonist Henry Haller shows himself to be an isolated prisoner to the culture in which he is forced to live and operate. Sex, drugs, and murder along with apparitions of Mozart, Brahms, and Wagner take Harry further into his own mind to find a path out. The dressing up and repackaging of Nietzsche’s early to middle writings (especially Human, All too Human (1878) and Daybreak (1881)) is thus apparent, as they are often seen as works of cultural criticism preceding his descent into philosophical considerations of the meaning of modernity itself, as seen in The Genealogy of Morality (1887) and subsequent writings.

Nietzsche, of course, was passionate about music and musicians (hence his brief, ill-fated friendship with Richard Wagner, on whose behalf he sometimes used to buy women’s lingerie for the composer to wear), and used them as examples in his writings. But having once believed that modern music, and particularly that of Wagner, was the key to overcoming the staleness of culture, Nietzsche showed a change of heart. No, it was not just in the later bitchy tomes from 1888 such as Twilight of the Idols, or The Case of Wagner, or Nietzsche contra Wagner, written during the course of Nietzsche’s increasing struggles with syphilis. In chapter 245 odlf Beyond Good and Evil (1886) Nietzsche proclaims that Germany had forgotten the important perspectives of the past altogether, in particular those of musicians. Praising Mozart’s gaiety and the transcendent qualities of operatic composers like Weber and Marschner, and expressing the fear that Beethoven as a transitory figure would be forgotten, he writes,

The “good old” time is past, it sang itself out in Mozart—how happy are WE that his ROCOCO still speaks to us, that his “good company,” his tender enthusiasm, his childish delight, his courtesy of heart, his longing for the elegant, the amorous, the tripping, the tearful, and his belief in the South, can still appeal to SOMETHING LEFT in us! Ah, some time or other it will be over with it!—but who can doubt that it will be over still sooner with the intelligence and taste for Beethoven! For he was only the last echo of a break and transition in style, and NOT, like Mozart, the last echo of a great European taste which had existed for centuries. Beethoven is the intermediate event between an old mellow soul that is constantly breaking down, and a future over-young soul that is always COMING; there is spread over his music the twilight of eternal loss and eternal extravagant hope—the same light in which Europe was bathed when it dreamed with Rousseau, when it danced round the Tree of Liberty of the French Revolution.

“Ta-da!” Nietzsche’s cultural critique embroiled itself in the great War of the Romantics, a largely philosophical debate in which opposing inheritors of the Beethovenian legacy were pitted against each other in discussions about Europe’s future. Such modes of philosophical discussion seem antiquated or odd but, once upon a time, classical music’s place among the cognoscenti was such that one’s aesthetic tastes were indicative of one’s politics and understandings of history. Brahms and his friends the Schumanns were associated with political conservatism, seeking to crystallize Napoleonic reforms while holding on to the original structures which the French Emperor had once sought to destroy. Wagner and Liszt represented the forward march of nationalism, and the attempts to make manifest the destiny of liberal thought through ethnocracies. And at the fountainhead sits Beethoven, the original form of the musician from the aristocratic clutch, whose dual focus on expanding melody and motive drove a wedge into the aesthetic hegemony of the 18th century.

For Nietzsche and Hesse, whose writings were separated by forty years or more, the musician’s obsession with expansion of past inheritance was not simply a useful metaphor for the sickness of societies, but a genuine prism through which cultures and attitudes were understood in the German speaking territories of Europe. Of course, the Anglo-American philosophical tradition likes to segregate music from understandings of democracy and, as such, passages such as these feel intensely foreign. And yet thinking about the implications of the fate of music are key for understanding not only Nietzsche, but those who came after. To an extent, in Steppenwolf, Hesse picked up where Nietzsche had left off, incorporating classical music into his orientalist fantasy of dissociative drugs and meditation.

As Henry Haller descends into his psyche, it is none other Mozart who guides him through the final chapter of his journey. The composers laughs incessantly and jokes, adhering to the traditional view of Mozart, as seen in films like Amadeus, of a childlike genius isolated from the world by his own intellect and ignorance.

He takes Haller into the final scene of Don Giovanni, where Mozart brags of his own achievement. Haller plays along, massaging Mozart’s ego:

“Oh, yes, Beethoven—he is wonderful too. But all that— beautiful as it may be—has something rhapsodical about it, something of disintegration. A work of such plentitude and power as Don Giovanni has never since arisen among men.”

But as hell opens up to swallow them, Haller finds neither Giovanni nor Leporello, but two other twinned figures:

    Mozart raised his hands as though he were conducting, and a moon, or some pale constellation, rose somewhere. I looked over the edge of the box into immeasurable depths of space. Mist and clouds floated there. Mountains and seashores glimmered, and beneath us extended world-wide a desert plain. On this plain we saw an old gentleman of a worthy aspect, with a long beard, who drearily led a large following of some ten thousand men in black. He had a melancholy and hopeless air; and Mozart said:
    “Look, there’s Brahms. He is striving for redemption, but it will take him all his time.”
I realized that the thousands of men in black were the players of all those notes and parts in his scores which, according to divine judgment, were superfluous.

    “Too thickly orchestrated, too much material wasted,” Mozart said with a nod. And thereupon we saw Richard Wagner marching at the head of a host just as vast, and felt the pressure of those thousands as they clung and closed upon him. Him, too, we watched as he dragged himself along with slow and sad step.
     “In my young days,” I remarked sadly, “these two musicians passed as the most extreme contrasts conceivable.”
     Mozart laughed. “Yes, that is always the way. Such contrasts, seen from a little distance, always tend to show their increasing similarity. Thick orchestration was in any case neither Wagner’s nor Brahms’ personal failing. It was a fault of their time.”

“A fault of their time” could have been another title, for classical music like any commodity is subject to conditions of time and space. The slavish attempts by Wagner and Brahms to augment the scope and scale of musical forms is not the reason for the ridicule so much as the allowance for society to place political eggs in musical baskets and vice versa. More simply, Wagner and Brahms lived in an era in which people placed significant cultural value into music, not just as a means of entertainment but as a way of thinking about the world.

So, where was Classical Music in America before the pandemic? The more I think about it, the more I fear that the doom and gloom in the news and on social media about the fate of classical music has very little to do with the virus, but with the demoted stature of our industry in American society. Our schools do not teach classical music, or even encourage students to listen to it. Conversely, our conservatories and music schools don’t encourage literary consumption or intellectual pursuits beyond the practice rooms. Just as Mozart isn’t required listening in the liberal arts degree, Hesse is not required reading in our music history seminars. We have clung to our recital and concert halls, dispensed with radio and television as means of educating the populace, and forsook consulting our greatest advocates to understand why classical music means something to them, and not just to ourselves. Music criticism in newspapers has been maintained only in a handful of select publications, kept alive through philanthropy rather genuine interest or demand, and very few musicians themselves have taken up the blog or social media platform to write extensively about the richness of classical music’s manifestations throughout history.

The classical music industry in America risks a death from the virus, because other illnesses and diseases had gotten to it first. Comorbidities are not confined to the tragic victims of COVID-19, but are also present in industries which have streamlined their priorities and forsaken other resources. Classical music survived previous global economic crises, wars, and pandemics, as there was an audience and consumer base waiting at the other end which placed social value in what we do. But our current audiences and resources have been drying up for so long in this country that basic classical music literacy has to be reintroduced into our schools and media before we can hope of prioritizing it ever again. Until such time, I see little use in making hours of footage for my musical colleagues to pat me on the back about. For such content will mean no more to audiences today than it did before the pandemic. For the question is not how we get people to listen again, but how we get people to want to start listening for the first time. How can we use this time to show Mozart and Beethoven to be as important as Nietzsche and Hesse?

We all have spare time right now.

To my musician friends: please start reading, and consider supporting, our classical music writers. I highly recommend subscribing to the following two blogs:



To my non-musician friends: take those great books and find what the authors listened to, or look up the works discussed by characters. Read the Sunday Arts section and, if you’re feeling brave, subscribe to one of the blog listed above.

To all voters: call your school board members, your local representatives, your congress members, and demand the reintegration of sincere and rigorous arts education in our public schools.




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The sky is falling (or so I’m told).

I feel as if I’m in a chapter of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, being sequestered in Cleveland (a city relatively unknown to COVID-19 so far, save the few documented cases brought from D.C. this week) as I watch the Eastern seaboard melt down from afar, and witness doomsdayers and naysayers alike bicker on social media about what the appropriate response should be. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m taking precautions with my personal hygiene, but I’m also bearing in mind that a true victim of the panic doesn’t look like you or me, but rather like a passenger on the Grand Princess in the Bay Area, who waited an eternity to know if and when they could safely disembark, quarantine and get treated as necessary.)

In part, the lack of perspective about illness is a major theme in life and times of Thomas Mann’s protagonist, Hans Castorp. Nestled in a Swiss Alpine sanatorium, Castorp is surrounded by wealthy tuberculoids whose problems often have little to do with their supposed disease, but the manner in which they deny or exaggerate their ill health at the encouragement of Dr. Behrens, the resident medical expert and entrepreneur. As Castorp’s two-week vacation to visit an ailing cousing morphs into a seven-year incarceration, he comes to realize that the rampant illness in the Alps is not tuberculosis, but blind faith in the self-interested system of treatment which prioritizes its own existence over genuine care for patience. Obsession and hypochondria prove themselves to be games for those with an upper hand, as Castorp’s fellow patients appear to become more and more helpless, no matter how much money they have. (Of course, this is all a metaphor for the demise of all sectors of society during the First World War, who trusted that their governments would keep them safe, when in fact they were all used as canon fodder.)

While one cannot dispute the motives for the lockdown in Italy or the refusal to dock the Grand Princess in San Francisco, the jockeying of mass hysteria has proven itself to be a white-collar game. I’m continually shocked at the inability of people to realize that shutting things down is really only going to prey on those who need transparency the most. I’m not a huge fan of Mayor DeBlasio, but his decision to keep NYC public schools open is very wise. On a humanitarian level, 100,000+ children dependent on school meals will remain fed, and their parents will maintain a chance of continuing to earn wages. From the epidemiological perspective, maintenance of certain patterns of contact and communication can make the virus easier to track and study (after all, it’s easier for the CDC to gain access to a school facility than walk into a person’s home, at least in the United States). I cannot contain my fury that a school like Harvard is shutting down dorms, encouraging more population movement as students scramble to get housing (many with limited financial resources, and no guarantee as of yet of remuneration from the school) while expecting them to keep up with a high level of academic rigor.

I don’t claim any direct experience with poor health or disease, but my entrenchment in the LGBT community places me in closer proximity to narratives of communicable disease than many of my heterosexual counterparts. Anyone familiar with HIV/AIDS will know how incredibly painful it is to see normally reasonable people become incredibly selfish in their impulse to collapse rather than confront the reality of an epidemic. How much more could have been known earlier on if the City of New York had not undertaken a systematic approach to outright destroying the spaces of communication rather than carefully studying how they might be tracked? For all the freedoms Americans enjoy on an individual level, there can be no denying that we are susceptible to the forces of groupthink that would callously throw society’s vulnerable under the bus.

(For my straight friends, if you look at your Facebook feed, you will notice that older and gayer the friend, the less likely they will be to give into your self-pandering. This is not coincidental. This is a manifestation of differentials in privilege.)

Ich mußt’ auch heute wandern
vorbei in tiefer Nacht,
da hab’ ich noch im Dunkel
die Augen zugemacht.

Und seine Zweige rauschten,
als riefen sie mir zu:
Komm her zu mir, Geselle,
hier find’st du deine Ruh’!

Just now my journey took me
past it at dead of night,
and even in the darkness
I had to close my eyes.

And its branches rustled
as if they were calling to me:
“Come here to me, lad,
here you will find your rest”!

I’ve been on a Twentieth Century German literature kick lately, particularly with writers from the 1920s and 1930s (Hesse, Man, Roth, Broch, Döblin, etc.). Willful blindness, while a common theme for many authors remembering the upheavals of the First World War, is peculiar in Mann’s Magic Mountain, where music symbolically upholds Hans Castorp’s clinging to his impetus to blindly protect himself. I admit to having been perplexed by the famous line uttered by Castorp’s liberal friend, Settembrini, that “there is something suspicious about music, gentlemen. I insist that she is, by her nature, equivocal. I shall not be going too far in saying at once that she is politically suspect.” Music, of course, like any art or media has the ability to lift the soul and embolden. But it also can have the effect of disarming the senses, prompting one to hand over not only their ears, but their sensibilities.

“Hans Castorp loved music from his heart; it worked upon him much the same way as did his breakfast porter, with deeply soothing, narcotic effect, tempting him to doze.”

Unlike Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, where vague, fictitious pieces (such as the famous “Vinteuil Sonata”) prompt flurries of memory and distraction, The Magic Mountain shows a darker side of music’s powers. All around the sanatorium, great works from the German musical canon are constantly playing on phonographs, or in the bar with visiting musicians, or otherwise running through Hans Castorp’s mind. But the moments of intersection only arise at moments of significant challenge to the protagonist’s view of how the world ought to look. Through the two authors are sometimes compared because of their verbose expressions of appreciation for music, in many ways they could not be more dissimilar: where Proust would capitalize on excess, Mann expounds on raw inhibition.

Indeed, by the end of the novel, the fifth movement from Schubert’s Winterreise, once a simple tune which the patients listened to in the sanatorium becomes a point of refuge for Hans Castorp in the trenches. Singing to himself in the trenches of World War I, it is not so much that Castorp is in denial of his mortality, but that rather that he would continue to romanticize it and seek some means of self-redemption, rather than transcendence. Of course this is part of the sick charm of Schubert’s Winterreise, as a man who is love drunk would willingly sacrifice his life in the cold. The message isn’t one of romance or beauty, but of the dangers of fear, obsession and isolation. There is no modulation or smooth transition into the second verse – moving suddenly from E Major to E minor, the musical material from verse is repeated almost verbatim in the new key, only to return back to E major in the third verse. It lacks subtlety, poise and even profundity, save that of exhibiting the singer’s distraction in so willingly giving into the impetus to curl up and self-destruct. (N.B., I don’t like Winterreise personally, but serves as a perfectly fine metaphor for the dangers of sentimentality and saccharine self-wallowing in Thomas Mann’s epic novel.)


My concerns about much of society’s inability to see past the tip of its nose have been dim for a while, but the latest trends in relation to COVID-19 have made it all the bleaker. American liberalism and values of self-individuation are being clung to, even at the expense of the economic fibers which support the rights a lot of us hold dear. The disease at the end of the day will likely be manageable, but only if those of means resign modes of self-pitying and protection.

On Tuning: A Brief Playlist

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It’s a strange sensation to be in New York while technically being on tour. My pedal harp sits in Cleveland, my clothes remain in suitcases in Washington Heights (as I’ll be heading back to Ohio in 48 hours) and I think my organ shoes are in my office(?) so I can play for church on Sunday. For now, I’ve an enforced Sabbath of sorts, in which I finally have time to sit down and write, this time “from the road.”

Without being trite, the sensation of touring – that is, the necessitation of consistent performance combined with absence of routine or normative expectations – is not terribly dissimilar to the processes of getting out of one’s comfort zone with an instrument. Sure it can be tough, but you get to travel, meet musicians you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and get out the grind of the day-to-day music making at home.

I’ll cease being vague.

The last week with Apollo’s Fire has been a somewhat Sisyphean journey with tuning, a I’ve a small harp equipped with a single row of strings, no levers or pedals, and a task of playing everything from Sephardic songs to Monteverdi continuo, from Armenian love songs to Arabic longas, all in the same concert. Of course, there are occasional breaks to retune, but at certain points, the harp is required to play in g minor and e minor in the same set, back to back. On stage, lutenists Billy Simms and Brian Kay are seamlessly switching between ouds, theorbos, guitars and lutes at will, soprano Amanda Powell sings in Hebrew, Arabic and Ladinio from scores written in IPA, and Zafer Tawil seems wields a microtonal qanun, kaleidoscopically spinning song to song, flipping gears with his left hand to add other-worldly colors to the ensemble.

At improvisational junctures, recorder player Daphna Mor picks up a ney and starts discussing how she will move from point A to point B using modes in the Arabic maqam, the system which divides the octave into 24 notes, while adhering to a scheme of septatonic modality.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t feel rather sheltered and out of my depth. Surrounded by musicians with truly incredible fluency and flexibility, I realized I’d been placing my harp in a box – that is, a box of Western tuning schemes. Harmonic minor scales, duly memorized as a child for ABRSM exams, only seemed to go so far, didn’t match the level of flexibility or expression achieved by my colleagues. In listening to Zafer and Daphna sing and play, I got a rudimentary sense of the overlap between different modes, but I really needed to learn more. Asking Zafer what I should do, he told me to use my ears and go listen to some Umm Kulthum. “If you listen to one of her songs, you’ll hear all the modes you’ll need.”

Sitting at home after the first rehearsal at 11pm, I felt at my most peak hipster, putting on my headphones and turning finding an 1950s Arabic music playlist on iTunes. Pen and paper in hand, I tried charting the tetrachords used in Kulthum’s 45 minute meta-songs, seeing how they related using nothing but intuition. The next morning, sat back with the harp, tuning key in hand, I started to divide minor thirds in half, so as to give me an “inbetween” note for F and F-sharp, as well as for B and B-flat. Later, with some experimentation with tetrachords, I was able to tune one part of the rehearsal in Saba (صبا) and another in Rast (راست) so to having something consistent and plausible.

The result was not only functional, but colorful and expressive. My instrument now blended with others on stage, and no longer stuck out. Of course, I should not have been surprised. Alternate tunings are part and parcel of what many baroque musicians do, day in and day out. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas require retuning of the open strings of the violin, so as to access harmonies and voicings that would otherwise be impossible.

Of course this is nothing new or outlandish for guitarists, as seen in Joni Mitchell’s famous open tunings (of which she devised somewhere between 60 and 80!).

I’ll spare the readers an essay on the history of temperament and tuning in Western Music, as plenty of musicians have written relatively digestibly on the matter. What I will say is that again and again, in confronting baroque music and non-Western music, I realize how engrained my sensibilities are to accept a Steinway’s tuning as patient zero for the harmonic expression in Western Music. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, if one is sticking to the canon of Romantic and Twentieth Century music, but I wonder to what extent harpists are hindered by accepting their instruments for what they appear to be at first, and not what they could be with a little insight and curiosity. Especially here in the United States, hashtags like #practicalharpist seem to flood the social media profiles of my colleagues, who endlessly promote harp hacks and means of making the profession easier or more approachable for the player, rather than more meaningful for listeners or the musicians playing alongside them.

I understand the impulse, truly. No harpist needs me to remind them that the harp is an awkward and misunderstood instrument. But what if we’re thinking about practicality the wrong way, simply finding shortcuts so we can efficiently adhere to a narrow vision of the harp which fulfills some normative or conservative expectations, but which has not fundamentally progressed in 40 or 50 years. This is an aesthetic hindrance, for sure, but also an economic one: we supposedly relish our nation as one of immigrants, and yet much of the music we make and seek out fails to embrace those elements (such as tuning) which distinguish musical traditions and disciplines from each other, and which are on the rise as non-Western commercial music industries continue to grow in the USA.

Harpists across the USA continue to struggle to make ends meet as the symphonic orchestra as an institution continually faces an identity crisis, but the act of taking on popular musical genres, historical performance and non-Western music – that is, music which by necessity lacks elements of strict prescription – somehow relegate a harpist to the rank of sell-out, untalented, or “insincere.” How much more employment opportunities might there be if conservatories expanded the scope of musical skills at the harp bench, if harp dealers took affirmative stances with a wider variety of harps, and if promoters embraced the sea of change in urban centers. While changes are on the horizon, I fear a landscape in which the harp will once again be left behind, continually relegated to a role as a pretty but impractical instrument. But what could be more practical than getting our instrument to test some boundaries and expand its utility and beauty at the same time?


St. Cecilia’s Day, 2019

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I normally find outpourings of grief on social media to be self-indulgent and over the top, but today has been at once rough and joyous.

Today, I remember Stephen Cleobury very fondly and with much gratitude, for no other reason than that he took a chance on me, appointing a kid from middle Tennessee whose childhood dream it was to be an organ scholar at King’s. Working for him was at once daunting and inspiring, as he labored tirelessly to shape the institution and future careers of choir members in the process. I know I wouldn’t be where I am had it not been for him and his belief in the potential of all the choristers, choral scholars and organ scholars he invited into the fold.

He deserved a retirement, so I’m holding out that his reward will be beyond what any of us can imagine. Let’s all hope the choir and organists upstairs exceed his expectations.

Var. I, II, III

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The few times I’ve tried to blog over the last year, I’ve attempted to put distance between myself and my writing. I wanted my life my life and observations on music to somehow read as effortlessly and romantically as Stendhal or Goethe, when in reality my thoughts on music are about as graceful as a horrible episode from Lena Dunham’s Girls. But when you’re in your twenties, that’s precisely what the internet is for, on the proviso that you just say “yo hell with it” and take advantage of the world wide web.

In avoiding my blog, I’ve been treating it like it’s precious, worrying about how things would look either in a year’s time or twenty years’ time, without remembering (a) the sheer size of the internet and (b) the ephemerality of any musical or intellectual idea. Over and over, I told myself I was going to write about the Goldberg Variations. Every week, I told myself I would start writing about my practicing, the things I was seeing it, etc. But over and over, I couldn’t really get past the Aria. I was fearful of saying too much, or stepping into musicological territory that I wasn’t qualified to talk about, or – God forbid – show an honest opinion. Isolation is powerful. If we let it go too far, it pervades not just our personal interactions, but the way we think about the things we do every day. Without realizing it, we can start putting up barriers where they shouldn’t be, lest we find something that taps into our senses too deeply for comfort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Dig, dig, dig.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Goldblogs: An Introduction

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MilanVia dell’Unione.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The first four varations of the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

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

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

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

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

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

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

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