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.”