Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Barefoot in Bach

I want to write about music tonight.

No, that’s not right. I want to play music tonight.

But since my skills are fairly feeble at the piano, and my kids are soaking up some gamma rays from the television, I will try to write about music instead.

And completely fail to do it justice.

There must be a reason for this divide. For the distance between words and notes, and the emotional effects they conjure in us.

Writers have to design emotion like a slow and meticulous spider spinning its web. It’s an intellectual process, at its very foundation. Readers absorb words in a similar way. Poetry—particularly free verse—is the closest we writers can get to being the conduits, and not the architects. While music . . . well, music is IV emotion shooting straight to the heart.

Doesn’t seem fair, does it?

If books and film are story-driven and wide, music is moment-contingent and deep. Complete immersion. Suspension. What I choose to listen to often shapes my mood like liquid being poured into an elastic and evolving reservoir. A song’s meaning is also layered by its past listenings, until we are moving through a grand canyon of visceral memory. In one sense, the emotion a song conjures deepens with every play (until we’ve worn it out, that is), and nostalgia is often the space/time harmony accompanying the melody itself.

So anyway. Where was I going with this again?

I’ve been listening to Bach lately. Specifically, his Goldberg Variations. More specifically, Glenn Gould’s impassioned, if eccentric, recordings of the Goldberg Variations.

And what does it conjure? Well, to explain it is to dilute its essence. It’s draining the immediacy of that liquid immersion. But I’ll try, anyway.

There is a bright, glassy clarity to Bach’s sound. Even his more melancholy variations have such a strength of structure stabilizing them that I know I’ll never be opened up too wide, or dragged too low. If I close my eyes while listening to the Goldberg Variations, I’m barefoot in the summer grass, feeling the cool specificity of each blade underfoot, as I walk, tiptoe, or dash across the lawn (not a field or wilderness—that’s too overgrown and hopelessly wandering for Bach).

I like its pure lines. The transfer of structure and calm (if only in the moment, alas). My thoughts may wander to the clouds while listening to Bach, but my heart is centered in my chest, and again, my feet are earth-bound.

Bach is a soothing balm when thoughts have become too overheated and unwound.

Yet music can also be emotionally dangerous. There is a darker landscape of song that not only shapes our mood, but saturates it to the point of masochism and pain. How can it wield such a power over us? Power that even the most beloved book cannot hope to duplicate for immediate impact.

And more intriguingly, why on earth would we invite it?

So many parts of our lives are not pliable. They’re fixed, like the bricks in a wall. Or the words on a page. Which provides stability and continuity, but also limits our freedom. Yet there are no barriers to where our hearts and souls might wander when we close our eyes, and press play. Or if, by some stroke of enviable fortune, we can play an instrument ourselves. It’s intoxicating to travel in that canyon, if also slightly treacherous for what it seems to paint on our lids and promise in the other world. For what it fails to deliver when our eyes snap back open at the end of the song, and only white silence embraces us.

Most of the great rock and pop songs are about desire of some sort. It’s no surprise. Desire is restless, fluid. Desire is eternal. And so is music.

We are not, but want to be. We desire desire. We want to live in the canyons of songs. Forever.

So have I gotten anywhere here with all of this? I don’t know. All that water seems to have slipped through my fingers . . . my web.

Aw, screw it.

Just listen to Bach, and kick off your shoes with me.


joaquin carvel said...

what an amazing performance. and the piano guy was good too.

i heard a story that beethoven, as a student of a student of bach, heard one of his pieces and said "not bach, but meer, should his name be!" (which makes more sense if you know that "bach" is "brook" and "meer" is "sea" in german.)

anyway, i have to say that as i was reading this i wondered if composers may sometimes feel the same way about writers - it seems to me the divide is mostly notes vs. words - but in the end, the hallmark of a truly great architect is that you don't think about the structure, because you are responding completely to the beauty or the energy or the serenity of the space.

or at least that's what i like to think, because i envy people who can play music, so imagining them being envious of someone else makes my horrible little mind feel a bit better.

Charles Gramlich said...

I think each art form, writing, music, drawing/painting, has it's strengths and weaknesses. Lana and I often discuss this, since I write and she paints.

the walking man said...

I will admit that to my ear Gould's fine, fine, fine, fingering has always distracted me by the muttering and singing he does as he plays.

What is there except music to take all of the senses into a place of conflict and resolution within so short of a span of time.

Words will do the same but they have to be pondered and thought over, the music is its own wings and saddle.

Catherine Vibert said...

Beautiful essay. Much as I love Bach, who I was listening to in the womb because of my father's insistence that it would be good for me while my mother was pregnant, I am not actually very fond of Gould's rendition. Of organ music, I love Helmut Walcha's rendition of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, as well as the Pasacaglia. I have a gorgeous guitar rendition of GV that I will send you an mp3 or two of. Of course, Yo Yo Ma's cello suites are like eating ice cream and chocolate. I remember being frustrated as hell learning the 1st choir alto part to the 1st motet. His motet's were written for the death of folks grand, and had to be learned between the death and the ceremony, and those puppies are really hard! So many many notes, and in 8 voices! But the sumptuousness of the choir, the repeated fugues in the various voices jumping in, going between cacophony and glorious harmony, completely sublime. Bach is my hero, I'm glad you brought him up!

Aniket Thakkar said...

Okay, I had no idea of who Bach is and all the other names Cat mentioned. But am glad I heard this. I travel for a couple of hrs daily for office and have been searching for good music that'll keep me calm after a tiring day.

This seems a perfect solution and more. And Joaquin pretty much said the rest. One can never compare one art to another. All are great in their own sense and mostly share mutual admiration and inspiration towards others.

We always hear what you write. So don't sweat. :D

Wine and Words said...

Music is the soundtrack to life. It imbeds memories and unearths them as well. It keeps company our moods, gives melody to our prose.

First time here. I play piano, sing too..but can't seem to do both at the same time. One or the other suffers, and that's just unkind...to the music :)

Karen said...

A multi-media expression is wonderful, in my eyes, ears, heart and mouth. I could go on - in my lungs, fingertips, toes, and limbs. All of these - music, art, poetry, fiction - all of these fill our senses with emotions and connections. I cannot even imagine a world without them.

Lovely Bach to accompany this evening's musings. Thanks, Sarah.

Sarah Hina said...

Joaquin, me too, me too! I'm pea green with envy. In fact, my mind must be similarly pea-sized and horrid. ;)

I love your Beethoven anecdote. That Ludwig guy was onto something...

And you're right--I'm examining writing from the writer's perspective, and music from the listener's perspective. It's not exactly a fair comparison, is it?

Thanks so much, Joaquin. This was an improvisation on my part, and a good excuse to share some Gould. I'm glad you enjoyed. :)

Charles, I think painting is a lot like music, in that it's an immersion into the canvas. That said, for the painter herself, it's slightly more complicated than that. As I'm sure Lana knows.

Mark, somehow I don't mind the mutterings. Maybe I like how completely he gives himself over to the performance. He really does seem like a conduit.

As for everything else you said...well, it's everything I should have said, if I had the talent for conciseness. ;) Beautiful, Mark.

Cat, I love, love, love how much you know and have experienced in this area, and how much you've shared with me. I'm listening to the guitar versions right now. :)

Okay, now come on! Put down that paintbrush, and make some recordings for us. (or better yet, sing with paintbrush in hand--I know you're a true Renaissance woman!)

Aniket, each art form is precious, as you say. I suppose it's my "grass is greener" syndrome. ;) I do want to keep up with the piano. I suck, but the good thing about that is I can only get better. (that's the cliche, right?) :P

I'm so glad you've been introduced to Bach! He's the foundation of classical music. If you want to listen to Yo Yo Ma's cello suites, it will be time well spent. I got to see him last year, and it was a highlight of my life. No hyperbole.

And thanks for the sweet words. You made me smile. :)

Wine and Words, thank you so much for coming by! I loved what you said about songs embedding memories and unearthing them later on. They are like time capsules that way.

I admire you for your musical abilities. And no worries on not doing both at once...at least you can get your right hand and left hands to work in concert. I'm having trouble with that much. ;)

Please come back. I appreciate the visit. :)

Karen, you're welcome. It was my pleasure. :)

I enjoy the multi-media posts, too. If I get brave one day, and could get Paul's help with the video camera, I might try to record something simple on the piano, to accompany a short film.

I've always appreciated your passion for poetry, fiction and art, Karen. And I'm just glad that so many people in our blogging circle do the same. It's remarkable that the internet can bring so many kindred spirits this close together. I love it!

jaz said...

Sarah, this was really fascinating to read. And you did not fail to do it justice--and I knew you wouldn't as soon as I read that. :P

I wonder if the points you touch on are why so many writers listen to music while they work--and choose pieces with purpose, depending on what kind of scene they are working on.

Maybe part of the power of music is that it makes us want to move, if loud enough we can actually feel it, that it is a visceral experience first, before we interpret or intellectualize it. We have to come to words with purpose and attention; music gets in much easier and maybe the unconscious part of that is why it gets in so deep.

Your yearning to play music but feeling that your skills aren't up to the task also reasonated with me--that's how I feel about my long short story. I can see it, I can feel it, I know it, but I just am not sure I can tell it. I don't mean that in some self-flagellatory way. I don't feel that way about other stories. Just. That. One. What to do when the impulse to create may exceed the ability to create???

Thanks for the Bach. It was lovely.

Sarah Hina said...

Jennifer, that's when it's time to gnash your teeth and listen to something a little feistier than Bach! ;)

No, I know what you mean. I desperately want to play the piano well. And I am practicing. But I can't get over the feeling that the piano's secretly laughing at me.

There's a difference, though. You ARE a writer, while I am a barely amateur musician. You could still have an epiphany concerning your story. I trust that you will. Because I sense you don't want to give up on it yet.

Back to the music thing...there are no filters in absorbing music, you're right. Maybe that's why I can't listen to music while writing. Or I rarely do. It seems to occupy me too completely, and I can't concentrate on my work.

So the music consumes the story for me. See?? No wonder I'm envious of musicians! :)

Thanks, Jen. As always.

Rick said...

Hello, Sarah. This was just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you.

Sarah Hina said...

Rick, I'm so glad it gave you a boost! You're quite welcome. :)

Nevine Sultan said...

"Yet music can also be emotionally dangerous. There is a darker landscape of song that not only shapes our mood, but saturates it to the point of masochism and pain. How can it wield such a power over us? Power that even the most beloved book cannot hope to duplicate for immediate impact."

"And more intriguingly, why on earth would we invite it?"

We invite it because we're compelled. Because music has the power to delve into our psyches and pull out what we may have led ourselves to believe are forgotten memories, and what we may have led ourselves to believe are emotions we are incapable of experiencing, it also has the power to place us face to face with who we really are, and not who we would like to believe ourselves to be. Words and music, both, have the ability to do this for us, but because as listeners we are engaging in a passive activity vs. the active activity of reading, we become more pliable, more malleable to the power of music.

Your post has brought back some memories for me - 1984 - the year I was introduced to Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations. I was a teenager. Let's leave it at that...

That was a nice, quiet way for me to enjoy a few minutes of my Sunday. Thank you, Sarah!


bard said...

Very interesting insights. You've given me a lot to think about.

Sarah Hina said...

Nevine, I completely agree with all that you said. We are more when listening to music. It slips right through us, past any defenses, and massages our hearts and minds. We are powerless before it, which can sometimes be a great relief.

And you're very welcome for the video! :) We all need that come-to-Gould moment in our lives.

Bard, I'm really glad you dropped in here. Thank you for the warm words.

Emily said...

Do you know that Bach wrote these variations for Count Goldberg, who was an insomniac? Pretty great. I love Glenn Gould. As a professional musician, I can sympathize (though not fall victim to, as Gould did) with his aversion to live performances. He described the audience as wanting to see him fail, waiting to pounce on him with criticism at the slightest bobble or failed mordent. Poor guy: of course there are those people in every audience. But I find it sad that he let them win. I make mistakes all the time: they are human delicacies to the friendly ear, and barbs that only hurt those who would think less of me for them.

Aah, Goldberg. Musical perfection, to be sure.