Yet More Verbiage About The Goldberg Variations

In April, I drifted off course, steadily. I can’t decide if I was the Titanic or the Exxon Valdez. Icebergs massed around me in the gloom of my pleasures. The boat needed a captain, but the captain was tired of giving orders, had had enough, and perhaps not without cause. Now we are here in May, the month immortalized by Schumann:

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The guy next to me in Starbucks, while I write these (and other, even more fatuous) words down in my little black notebook, is writing a love song–yet another in the infinite series, the infinity-plus-oneth love song. I can’t resist spying and make out the phrase “thought of letting you go” amid a misshapen stanza in red pen. He looks up, catches me peeping; for a moment our eyes meet across the crusty whorish tabletop; and I just can’t believe it but with a slow opening of his face he sends at me a brotherly smile, construing me in a glance as a fellow poet. (No, I’m just a wigged-out blogger!) It is not the first discombobulating tender smile I have received this spring.

Step one. Suppose you clear away all the happinesses that you distrust? Step two. Clear away all the unhappinesses that you have come to trust. Get rid of them too, don’t count on your miseries or your titillations. What will be left behind? Perhaps, after you’ve cleaned all that out, you might find in the back of your cupboard something like the theme of the Goldberg Variations. A deeply trustable happiness. A tender, discombobulating–but not discombobulated!–smile with just enough sadness and loss in it to be believable, to be endurable.

When I was an idiot (read: teenager) I used to really rock out on the ending of the Goldberg Theme, just the last bar and a half, and really especially I enjoyed dwelling on the last dissonant F-sharp, making it into a little orgasm of delay.

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I distinctly remember the snort my teacher emitted when I did this. (Conflating detail and essence!) Now, however, I seem to be more or less the same idiot, since this same cadence still calls to me, speaks to me, but it’s seasoned differently–it’s become part of a larger stew. Now I’d put it this way: Bach invests the cadence itself with tremendous consolatory power. (Notice how my rhetoric shifts from youth to age: from orgasm to consolation.) And this is extraordinary because a cadence is an ordinary, obvious thing–like the period at the end of a sentence, from which you don’t expect much meaning. Part of its function is to be taken for granted.

If “cadence” were a word in the dictionary (OK, it is, but you know what I mean), Bach in the Goldberg Theme has found one of its less-often-used meanings; one of the fun ones; and he locates this meaning with the help of the “words” that he uses to lead into it … through their implications … Bach takes us on a little arching journey before the cadence, making it appear to be the unwinding of a long spool of thread-thought. Now, this journey is a Departure from the Theme Proper. The theme (so far) has been a flowery accumulation of ornaments, dotted rhythms, and sudden fillips: something like a dancer, or at least a harpsichordist trying to be a dancer. But then, newly poised, the theme abandons itself, releases itself to a continuous stream of sixteenth notes:

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… and precisely at the climax of that stream, of that moment of release and change, the theme stops. Just at the moment that it suggests continuity–that which might not end–it ends! This paradoxical hinging of the cadence (return) on the back end of the arch (departure) gives a sense of motion and transcendence to the conclusion: it puts wings under earth. The consolation of the necessary made extraordinary. And it is not, of course, just that one time; every variation revisits that element of unwinding, falling back (escaping back, lofting back) into the tonic, rewrites it, refashions it … Every variation! At some point you could just order up some Chinese food, lay back in bed and eat Sesame Chicken and drop bits of gooey rice on your Bärenreiter while you compare just the cadences of all THIRTY variations, notice how delicious they are, fall asleep full and greasy and smiling, and wake up at 3 in the morning in the middle of a dream about MSG. Not that I’ve done that.

In the morning when you wake from your glutamate nightmares you can read all over the webosphere about the various canons in the Goldbergs and analyze them until your eyes water. Go nuts, have fun with that! Each of them is at a different interval, displaying incredible mastery of counterpoint blah blah blah.

Call me crazy, but “incredible mastery of counterpoint” is one of those phrases that just leaves me cold. Let me pursue my own inadequate analogy. Suppose I call friend X, I know when I call him that he will worry about his career; whereas if I call friend Y we will speculate about life on Mars, and make fun of each other; and if I call friend Z it is partly because I am craving her tone of voice, which helps me feel that my apartment is not empty of everyone but myself, my toaster, and my piano. Bach must have felt the intervals were his friends, don’t you think? His best buds. He was closer to understanding them than anyone in history–their possibilities, their limitations, their quirks. Actually, let’s not kid ourselves: It is largely through his understanding of them that we now understand them. And here he is, Bach is explaining to us the circle of his closest friends, introducing us to them … Like a good friend too he is showing us their good sides, but without mythologizing them: they have their “rough spots.” (Knowing the weak spots, the thorny corners of each interval, knowing these deeply, might be one way to define “mastery of counterpoint.”)

Each canon’s a loving portrait, as if Bach is saying “that’s just classic fourth behavior, isn’t it?”, poking you, nudging you, laughing a little bit at the stodginess of the fourth while at the same time loving its dependability for construction, like a Lincoln Log. The Canon at the Second is a great example … Bach lets the second do what it’s naturally inclined to do, to make a chain of expressive dissonances:

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… but then, as if to say, OK that’s a bit obvious, that’s the side of the Second we all already know … when he comes round the bend, he sends in some renegade dissonances:

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B and B-flat, vying; then C and C#, yow! … all of which as if to reveal some hidden perversity in the interval itself, to show some concealed possible corner of the second’s personality … what the Second does when he’s at home alone, when no one’s watching.

Yes, there is some irreverence in each portrait of each interval, which is as it should be. Love and reverence are not synonymous. I have a great deal of reverence and love for irreverence (also, a great deal of impotent irreverence for love?) In part, the mishmash of reverence and irreverence is what really gets me off about the Goldbergs. Throughout the piece, peeking in often like a child, there’s an impish leaping spirit of virtuosity; meanwhile down below–always, always–you find the same sober flowing bass. The bass which makes perfect sense; above it all sorts of madness, finger-play, coruscation, invention.

If you like, the variations have one desire to drift off course, and another to remain on message. (Hence the theme’s powerful confluence of cadence/wandering.) Enough about Bach, back to me: I’m here, in the wunderschönen Monat Mai, recovering from the April’s onset of spring fever, from emotional wanderings, but still savoring meanings of smiles, wondering about things said outside bars at 4 AM … am I back on course? Or is there still more oil slick in my future? Casting about my notebook for clues, I find a few journal entries: “Practiced Bach hungover. Extreme joy.” The next day: “Much more Bach, finding center, strength in RH, the incredible audacity of the cadenzas … rocking out …” The next day: “Bach d minor cadenza, the reiteration, the insistence, a kind of harmonic mania, moving by destabilizing 5th …” Each day some words that are proper and musicological and some that betray an urge to insanity. And then each day the words run out, I can see where I lose patience with them and yet am inspired by them and run to the piano to play.

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Furry Muses

Well, I was just sitting round the apartment on my same old butt, eating crappy Indian takeout, looking longingly at the box of wine my friend C sent me, etc. etc., when I decided to do some due diligence regarding my exciting assigment as vlogger for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. In case you don’t know, the YouTube Symphony will be performing at Carnegie Hall on April 15 and there will no end of excitement there and symphonic synergy smoothies and virtual musical orgasms and DJs and free naked snowboarding lessons and everything your heart can desire, so you should buy your ticket here. (Can I have my check now?)

Anyway, as you can imagine, I was very curious to see who got picked as the pianist winner. You can go look for yourself at this link. The pianist is by his own admission not primarily a “classical player,” whatever the heck that horrible phrase means, but there is something very likable about the playing.

For some reason I found his video very moving. Something about the Italian sunlight–or is it a spotlight?–streaming in from the undisclosed above; something about the beaten-up upright, cornered against the wall, guts exposed … But maybe most affecting is the dog in the corner, slumped expectantly. I admire how the video begins without people, with just piano and dog; who knows, perhaps only at this moment of being filmed they realize they are both beasts?

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The Most Concise, Brilliant Put-Down of Wagner Ever

Samuel Beckett, 1932, trying to describe the poems he’s written that seem better to him, less “constructed”:

I cannot explain very well to myself what they have that distinguishes them from the rest, something arborescent or of the sky, not Wagner, not clouds on wheels; written above an abscess and not out of a cavity, a statement and not a description of heat in the spirit to compensate for pus in the spirit.

Clouds on wheels! Snap!

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Mozart, Trickster

Without introduction, Mozart’s K. 533 leaps into being:

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… and one of the many things one could love about this idea is that it says thanks but no thanks, I don’t really need or want to be harmonized.
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