letter to RS: Goldbergs revisited

photo by    Doug Hanson

photo by Doug Hanson

2 May 2015

Dear friend,

It has been nearly half a year since I performed the Goldberg Variations.  Perhaps it was the quiet sun and free evening that led me to pull out the music again tonight.  It's not as though I shut them away after my recitals -- the Aria and a handful of variations have escaped me now and then -- but I did shut away all that was attached them: the detritus of a year's worth of work and living.

I think that if, in the future, someone asks who I am, I will play them the music of J.S. Bach.  I have never wanted be anything more than these variations: their brilliant clarity, complex beauty, exacting perfection of theme and motif.  Who, when hearing Bach's keyboard music, can long for anything else in life? 

The Goldberg Variations project was born 17 months ago when I received the Urtext edition sheet music, a gift from my brother.  I had learned a few variations in years prior, but I wasn't nearly ready for them then.  In January of 2014, though, I sat down to learn these new notes and wondered why I hadn't spent all my life breathing them.  There are pieces like that: that when we behold them, they fulfill a desire we never knew we had.  The contemplative domestic light of Johannes Vermeer, the luminous greys of a Whistler Thames.  They are like stepping into a warm bath: certain works put the soul at ease.

Sometimes I wonder why this is: why do masterworks move us this way?  Perhaps a better description is to say that they resolve us.  They loosen the chains of tired bodies and hyperactive minds and we are connected with pure energy -- light, sound, space, earth.  I remember hearing Demondrae Thurman for the first time, and it was as if he held no instrument at all.  Wind and song poured forth from him like waves from the ocean. 

I think these masterworks speak to baser parts of our selves: our Natural rhythms and forms, our thirst for the light that nourishes us, our desire to grasp and own what we feel we lack.  If architecture is frozen music, as Goethe said, then these constructed bones are holding the songs of the earth beneath us.  Biological cathedrals in which moon phases chime the hour and each season sings a new cantata. 

Then what are these Goldberg Variations?  Laughter (23 and 26), closeness (7, 13, 15), dance (24, 27), among other things.  Right now, for the first time since last summer, the slanted evening light is illuminating the buzzing of hundreds of insects beyond my window, and stretching down to the river.  This world is once again teeming with life, and it feels like this music.  And it feels like arriving home on the 30th variation. 

Not long ago, I could not think of this piece without remembering the difficulties that accompanied its learning my hands and fingers; the incredible tension as I prepared for performance, the exhaustion of every moment of practice and study, the unexpected newness (and associated terror) of every embarkation at Variation 1.  I know now that that is not this music, only what I assigned to it.  This music is pure water and light. 

Among the ten thousand things I learned from the Goldbergs, perhaps the most important is something I also learned from you: to explore.  Never to be content not learning, not asking questions.  Masterworks like these remind us that artistry goes beyond medium, practice, performance, even study.  Art is a part of our Natural world, and it affects every landscape -- cultural, political, social, internal -- to which we attach ourselves.  I learned this as much from the comprehensive, year-long studies you and I did together as from Variation 12, the canon on the fourth.  It is at once like looking through a microscope and to the peaks and valleys of the Tetons.  Natural architecture.  (Capital N: from Nature itself.)

I only wish I had a hundred lifetimes, or at least two or three, to live with Bach.  To play his music seems to me like speaking with the Universe itself: cosmically ordained perfection.  Perhaps I will start next with the French Suites, or the few Toccatas I never learned -- or simply re-learn the C-minor, my uncontested favorite, last performed five years ago.  It was in learning that piece that I realized that I should die happy if I only played Bach for the rest of my life.  Maybe I'll try that.  My endeavors with the pipe organ bring me even closer to him.  I will stay there. 

Infinite thanks,