LHR —> JFK

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. (https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/masterpiece-in-the-making/)
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.


Anyway

This is slightly old news, but it looks like I’ll be in residence at IRCAM off and on from 2022 into 2023 with composer Josh Levine! We’ll be working on a new concert work for harp and live electronics which is going to be pretty wild.

I’m grateful that Helen Leitner at Camac took some time to talk to me and Josh about it. Have a look:

Anyway


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.


Omolu

I had a great time doing a little write up for Camac Harps on my collab with Marcos Balter for the Miller Theatre at Columbia University. Sometimes getting into the nitty gritty of how to approach a new work gets bogged down in a little too much specificity, so I was lucky have an outlet where I could nerd out!

EN: https://blog.camac-harps.com/en/latest/demystifying-new-music-parker-ramsay-marcos-balter-and-omolu/

FR: https://blog.camac-harps.com/en/latest/demystifying-new-music-parker-ramsay-marcos-balter-and-omolu/


Deray

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.

(Ta-da!)

Pride month is upon us, and in celebration I’ve been down to the Film Forum to see Jacques Deray’s La piscine no fewer than three times. If you know anything about the film, it’s reasonable for you to be scratching your head. The film has no explicit gay themes and no gay actors (provided you remain wilfully ignorant of Alain Delon’s supposed former life as a sex worker/taxi boy.) And yet, I’ve been drawn to the film repeatedly to bear witness a to a rather beautiful depiction of a very important element in gay life: discretion.

The plot is a tad complicated, but in essence it’s just a tale of love and murder between four people. A failed writer (twunky Alain Delon) lives with a wealthy older woman (Romy Schneider) on her estate in the French countryside. Her incredibly wealthy ex (butch Maurice Ronet) – who is also Delon’s oldest friend from high school) – pays a visit, with his estranged teenaged daughter (model Jane Birkin) in tow.

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.

A Bigger Splash', David Hockney, 1967 | Tate

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?

A David Hockney painting of a person swimming in a pool while another person looks down at them from the edge of the pool.

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.”


Variation 1: Emerson et al.

“Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson

The album comes out in just a few short weeks, and while I’ve been trying to stay active on social media, I’ve not been so attentive to the blog. But as I sit on Oberlin’s campus this week, memories flood back as to how my perspective on performing changed, not so much because of what I was playing, but because of what I was reading.

Just a year before coming to Oberlin, I was sat at Cambridge University, finishing a history degree and miring myself in a steady diet of music-crazed Teutons. I admit I latched on to Nietzsche, Hesse and Mann (to whom I still cling to an extent), all brilliant progenitors of fantastic deconstructions of the world around them, spinning existential discussions of “succumbing” and “overcoming.”

Nietzsche’s references to Beethoven Beyond Good and Evil are almost comical:

Beethoven is something that happens between an old crumbling soul which is constantly breaking up and a very young soul of the future which is constantly coming. In his music there lies that half light of eternal loss and of eternally indulgent hoping – that same light in which Europe was bathed when it dreamed with Rousseau, when it danced around the freedom tree of revolution and finally almost worshipped before Napoleon.

Hesse’s horrific opium dream in Stepphenwolf is guided by Mozart, describing Germany’s spiritual deprivation after the First World War with references to Brahms and Wagner:

Mozart aised 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.”

And who can forget Hans Castorp’s slow prolonged death to the tune of the Lindenbaum from Schubert’s Winterreise?

Oh, how ashamed we feel in our shadowy security ! We’re leaving we can’t describe this ! But was our friend hit, too? For a moment, he thought he was. A large clod of din struck his shin-it certainly hurt, but how silly, it was nothing. He gets up, he limps and stumbles forward on mud-laden feet, singing thoughtlessly:

                        And all its branches rustled // As if they called to me

And so, in the tumult, in the rain, in the dusk, he disappears from sight.

(You get the idea.)

These authors embody so much of what I had always loved about music: the ability to share in an experience with a great writer or author, plunging a mundane existence into something “larger” or temporally expansive.

Of course, Cambridge is the perfect setting to look at culture through a set of binoculars. The Ivory Tower is old and tall, looming over you as you wander cobble streets alongside Nobel Prize laureates and borrow tattered library books once handled by members of the Bloomsbury group. You can bury yourself in your studies and consume all the material in the world, keeping its fundamental implications at an arm’s length. You can learn to argue and philosophize and never form an identity or opinion. You can be smart without gaining an ounce of wisdom.

There was no more damning an indictment against my Cambridge education than my first seminars with Dr. Steven Plank at Oberlin, for it was there I had my first exposure to Ralph Waldo Emerson. In reading The American Scholar, I realized the terrifying truth that – despite being an American – I had zero concept of American liberal education or the peculiar mission still alive in the American academy to “free the mind.” Of course, “the” famous quote was discussed in class:

The scholar must needs stand wistful and admiring before nature, this great spectacle. He must settle its value in his mind.

We were assigned the task of responding to the essay from the standpoint of a musician, and I admit it was a struggle. I scrambled something together that was analytical and factual, and it backfired. I was told the essay was fine, but that it didn’t merit a grade ­– “I don’t want to read it. Read more Emerson.”

And so I did. A few readings of the famous Self-Reliance were followed by a mild obsession with the more obscure Circles. It wasn’t long before I moved on to Thoreau, reading about the author’s experiment in forging knowledge in the wilderness.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Walden, Henry David Thoreau

From my seminars to my instrumental lessons, I realized that I had placed a huge wall between myself and music without realizing it. I could tell someone whatNietzsche got out of Beethoven, but not why I liked Beethoven. I could hum Der Lindenbaum and quote Thomas Mann, but I couldn’t tell you how I was impacted by the music on its own terms. I found myself simply assigning value to art which non-musicians found meaning in, thinking it proof that I was somehow getting “outside” of my headspace as a musician.

I’d be lying if I said that Thoreau and Emerson didn’t hang over me in the transcription process. Dealing with any score by Bach constitutes an experience in the wilderness, as he leaves few clues behind as to what to make of his music. This is nowhere truer than in the Goldbergs, where one lacks even the guidance of movements labeled with dance idioms to figure out tempi or affekt.

Variation 1 keeps performers up at night, as everyone knows it and can hum it but cannot agree on what’s going on. Is the cute little “Yaa-baba-pum pum pum pum” a polonaise figure? Or a mere diversion from the right scales which have picked up from where the Aria left off? Are there two voices?

Or does the left hand have an extra implied voice? If one separates out the bass line from the middle voice, it’s as if there’s a trio of voices singing rather than a duet between the hands.

What about when the hands start passing material off to one another? Is the rhythmic motor really the polonaise figure? Or is it an incredibly minute cell of two sixteenth notes which are continually echoed between the two hands?

The great thing about the harp is that it basks in sonic ambiguity, as any note naturally rings long beyond its written duration. The dichotomy between two and three voices becomes moot, as does any difference of articulation between the two hands. One resigns that level of control and in turn allows the distinct disciplines of harmony and counterpoint to be naturally conjoined.

What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web, but always circular power returning into itself. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar

During the pandemic, I’ve returned to Nietzsche, Hesse and Mann with enjoyment, as they remind us all what it means to be changed continually by the inheritance left behind by composers. But that’s only half the story. For me, Emerson and Thoreau complement our external impetus and beckon the scholar – or musician – to withdraw into themselves to find Performers don’t have the luxury of sitting at a distance and treating a dead composer as a kindred spirit, but rather have to tussle with a mediation process and assume the audience has the capacity for reception. In this sense, the scholastic approach and musical approach are no different, so long as they are both undertaken with the premise that there is something which we might not yet know.


The Goldblogs: Aria

September 5, 2019
King’s College, Cambridge

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. 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. The book is nevertheless insightful, for 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.)

*           *           *           *

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.

*           *           *           *

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.

For all the erudition and galanterie, 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, but rather because those ornaments sound different under every set of fingers and in every set of ears.


Hitchcock and Poulenc

Irrelevant Reviews
#8
Rope (1948)

At the suggestion of a friend, I returned to Hitchcock’s Rope and was shocked yet again by the outlandish flaunting of homosexuality in a film produced in 1948. The plot is not complicated: two WASPy aesthetes kill one of their old prep school classmates (David) and hide him in a trunk. A dinner party ensues, whereby one of the murderers (Philip) is racked by guilt while the other (Brandon) is hoping to get caught by another former classmate, played by James Stewart. Brandon proudly flaunts the rope used to kill David and placed candelabras and linen on the trunk where the body is hidden, while Philip (a professional musician) turns to the piano several times as a means of concealing his guilt or creating a distraction.

The murder serves as a metaphor for sexuality, as Philip and Brandon go through the pageantry of diverting attention to grant friends and neighbors the benefit of a doubt that the evening’s entertainment is just a simple dinner party: curtains are drawn to hide moments of intimacy (such as the murder itself), affairs with women are discussed (though the women are not seen), and despite the being filmed in a large Manhattan apartment, a bedroom is never in view, as the drama only ensues in the dining room, living room and foyer. There is subterfuge, but no ambiguity. Hitchcock’s self-appointed mission to make a film about “it” (i.e. homosexuality) is blatant and obvious, as Hitchcock even went so far as to make sure that both actors were gay, as to ensure a saucy dynamic on screen.

While the cat and mouse game is fun, I found the diegetic use of the piano to be utterly fascinating. Each time Philip is racked by guilt at the sight of the rope, he doesn’t sit down to play just any piece – he plays Poulenc’s Mouvement perpétuel no. 1, chosen by Hitchcock himself because of the constant rhythmic motive and strange harmonies which aptly mirror the machinations of a guilty conscience.

One performance in particular on the screen stands out, as James Stewart puts on the metronome as he interrogates the softer of the two murderers as he plays. Despite the metronome’s steadiness, he continues to rush and struggles to maintain his cool, lashing out that he can’t play along with the steady tick-tock used to expose a musician’s rhythmic flaws.

(It’s interesting to note that Francis Poulenc was also gay, and while living under Nazi rule in Paris used various codes to signify resistance to the occupation in his concerts: poems associated with the resistance were set to music, particularly those by Paul Éluard in Figure Humaine; songs such as “Vous n’aurez pas l’Alsace et la Lorraine” were hidden in works like Les Animaux modèles. He was a founder of the Front National (the musical wing, that is) which continued to maintain close ties with banned composers like Darius Milhaud and Paul Hindemith. Of course, while Mouvement perpétuel dates from much earlier in Poulenc’s career (being composed in 1918), it’s a fitting coincidence that his music should be used in a film bartering in themes of code, behavior and transgression.)

Overall, a great film, only 80 minutes long and an excellent visual (and musical) meditation on the stakes of concealment.