As one goes through life, it’s possible to look back and organize the self-mythology not just in terms of successes and accomplishments (and of course, failures), but those experiences which emancipate the psyche from some personal impediment or struggle. This week, an email correspondence with a musician and writer (with whom I’m newly acquainted) constituted such an epiphany, slapping me in the face and reminding me why it is I started a blog several years ago.
The writer in question had written a very personal blogpost that had been important for me at various times and places in my life (for reasons I shan’t reveal). I reached out for no other reason than to tell him so, and in his gracious response, he told be why he’d written the piece. In his words, a sense “fuck it” spurred him to write, as blogs are ideal spaces for some self-involvement and intellectual exhibitionism.
It really got me thinking: I haven’t said “fuck it” about my blog for while. And that’s because I haven’t said it about my life for a while.
So, indeed, fuck it.
Since the departure of a significant mentor from the organ department at Oberlin Conservatory (where I’m still enrolled), I’ve been in an emotional fetal position, as facts about some rather toxic student-teacher relationships in organ lofts keep coming to light, not only in Ohio, but also at another institution where he taught in New England. I’ve blamed myself for having studied with him in the first place, for having defended him when I studied with him, and even more recently for having mixed feelings about the way colleagues have turned the legacy of an abusive teacher into a platform for their own emotional grandstanding and attention seeking because of dissatisfaction with their careers. For me, there is no easy way forward except to move on, and the decision I made to do so rather quietly – as painful as it was – seemed the only way I would be able to cope.
Don’t get me wrong, I saw my teacher at his worst: at various points I was groped, I was asked to remove my shirt, I was asked to expose my genitals, I was called a faggot, I was offered to be shown nude photos of former students, I had my back poked with his erection through his trousers in my lessons, I was offered money to sleep with a heterosexual student in the department (on three occasions, no less), I was sworn at, I was yelled at, and I was placed under scrutiny not just for my organ playing, but my life as a peron, having my character assassinated behind my back to numerous colleagues and Oberlin faculty.
At the same time, I sat still when he touched me, I told him I was cold when he asked me to take my clothes off, I said I had to go to another lesson when I was asked to take my pants off, I pretended it was his belt buckle on my back, I swore back at him, I yelled back at him, I pretended not to hear him when he called my ex a kike, I derived pleasure when he slammed the door in my face on hearing the news that I’d be going to Juilliard to study the harp, and I was positively giddy to go out and succeed despite his attempts to destroy me and use my drive for his mind games.
But most of all, – and this is very, very important – I didn’t breathe a word to anyone in Oberlin administration, my family or my ex.
That’s right. I played along. I knew what was happening was wrong, and would have ramifications not just for me, but for my colleagues and those I loved. Even when it was more acceptable to talk, I could have spoken out, but I didn’t. I pulled out of talking to the Boston Globe. I declined to participate in the Title IX process. I still refuse to sue Oberlin College. Why? Because for one, I told myself that any or all of these things will have negative ramifications, long term. Knee-jerk reactions can have unintended consequences, because the future is never something to say “fuck it” about. But secondly, I knew that to point a finger at anyone else but myself or my teacher would be to partake in a considerable amount of deflection that I couldn’t live with.
As horrible as he was, I wasn’t going to scapegoat a perv for my own selfishness and shortcomings.
This has come at a price. I’ve spent about 12 months over-practicing, self-isolating, actively suppressing certain things that might test my emotional faculties (such as reading, revisiting museums over and over, or indulging in overpriced coffee) and pushing it a little too hard at the gym (I mean I look great, but I feel like crap). I started seeing a psychiatrist who took me off medication (as it was in fact making everything worse in the first place). I started paying more for therapy than for rent. And in the midst of all this, I’ve been shamed by colleagues for not speaking out about my organ teacher. I’ve been shamed by the same colleagues for not being angrier. And I’ve been shamed because my silence has wrought a cynical assumption that I faced no abuse from my mentor and was somehow unscarred.
On a deeper level, I haven’t been seeing behind musical scores or thinking about composers the way I used to love to do, mirroring the sense in which I wasn’t thinking about the context and background of my own life. My reflex has been to resort to return to everything I had been “taught” to do in my private conservatory-style lessons, such as to play accurately, not to push boundaries and to isolate one’s musicianship from that thing which might ruin it: the outside world. If I’m honest, it was a real setback, as the “fuck it” attitude that had led me to do things like play three weird instruments and start a blog, also gave me the courage to (for better or worse) transcribe the Goldberg Variations for the harp.
Most of all, I’ve been super weirded out by putting up anything on the blog for fear of judgment or scrutiny. I kept fearing that I would reveal something about myself or my life when I talked about music, and that a single histrionic observation or reflection might let someone into my world. That’s because (like the organ) my relationship with writing is a product of my schooling, particularly my time spent at Oberlin. In going through the rigor of academia, you start to internalize the paradigms and frames passed down to you. You can fight with your teachers about it all you like (I did that, a lot), you can compose essays and make presentations proving the uselessness of most music theory curricula (did that too), and even be applauded for it by sympathetic professors and mentors (Steve Plank and Kendall Briggs, I’m looking at you). But it’s still an uphill battle. You can call it intellectual insularity, Luddism, philistinism, whatever you like, but essentially all it boils down to is that you’ve got something to say, but nowhere to say it. No publisher, ISBN number, no lecture theater.
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 “fuck it” and take advantage of it. 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.
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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.
It 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.)
As 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. I’ve decided to say “fuck it.”