Thursday
Apr142011

State of Wonder: Upon Listening Again to Glenn Gould's Interpretation of Bach's "Prelude No. 1 in C Major"

Christopher Bundy


 

There is so much talk about music, and so little is really said.
I do not think words are at all adequate for the subject,
and if I found they were, I should end by writing no more music.

Felix Mendelssohn

 

I have imposed this music on every moment in my life when I had the good sense to stop and listen for two and a half minutes.

 

In baggage claim I dance in anticipation, each piece of luggage that belongs to someone else a delayed climax. You, somewhere between here and there, wait for me.
 

A standalone piece that introduces the longer and more complex pieces of Bach's The Well-Tempered Clavier, a book of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys. This preface finds no life it cannot render, no feeling it cannot introduce.

 

Windows open to warm air rifling our bed sheets, wrinkled and wet underneath, the rising falling of our astonishment. The things we have done.
 

Gould saw Bach's 48 preludes and fugues as a rapport between a linear continuity and harmonic security. Wherever he goes along the keyboard there is agreement, even when there is variance.

 

Pushkar, India, is a holy place.  The iced and sweetened lime juice, the billow of white kurtas in the dust.  The lake, water rising from Brahma's dropped lotus flower. The 200-year-old banyan. The money-changer screaming, motorbiking after us, a clinched fist at me and my new wife before he slams into the walls of a telephone service. And the iced and sweetened lime juice.

 

You would sound like this—Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum, if you were inclined, like Gould, to hum-sing the notes, which, when you hear Bach's logic, you cannot help but do.

 

Alone in the Georgia mountains—a few minute's walk from the North Carolina border, a retreat, but a return as well. Missing the girls, praying all is and will be right. Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum, I hum-sing my own mantra. Protect me from chaos and loss. Preserve the people I love. For I cannot.

 

Bach did not write for the piano. He did not care for the original instrument—not much of what we play today, of which, based on his suggestions, some changes were made to allow for a fuller dynamic range. Yet, there is no better instrument for these preludes and fugues.

 

It is true what they say of children, that they slip through your fingered life, that you're lucky if you linger long enough in even a few instances and acknowledge beauty and innocence. I am allowed no more time with you than anyone else, no matter how much I stare and try to hold on.
Play with me—
These things I said to myself.
Play with me—
These things I told myself to remember.
Play with me—
These things I say to myself again. Remember.
Play with me—
These things I have forgotten and will forget again.
Play with me—
In a minute, sweetheart, in a minute—

 

Bach was the leading light of contrapuntal technique: independent in contour and rhythm but harmonically interdependent: punctus contra punctum: point against point.

 

A stranger's hands work at my neck and along my spine, kneading them submissive—it's alright, just let go, she says. But I can't, my muscles contract in anticipation of the push push rub and roll, point counter point, the harmony I seek in tension, in the juxtaposition of struggle and surrender.
 

appoggiatura: accented dissonance, usually a passing-tone or a neighbor-tone. Its name derives from the word appoggiare = "to lean". Its most natural resolution is by descending stepwise motion.

 

In the figure of a woman—
As if for the first time, you enter the room, in flight—aren't you always—and I know nothing of what comes next, but can't stop myself. I only want to rest my hand on yours, bend my will to yours, abandon whatever idiocy I cling to. Don't leave, don't walk away.

 

cantus figuratus: a melody consisting of notes of mixed rhythmic values.

 

In the figure of a girl—
Each night: I stare at the measure of your sleeping face in apology. You meant nothing by it. It means nothing that you spilled your juice at dinner, a sweeping hand, an excitement in your day. It means nothing that you want to play a minute longer in the bath. It means nothing that you abandoned your dress in a heap before streaking through the house naked. Except: it is late. I am tired. I am in doubt, never trusting myself with joy for more than a minute. And you are a child.

 

He plays the staccato on the last note of every measure; on the later measures he sustains the note slightly.

 

In Kamakura, Japan, a night of holiday, sushi and drink, a tiny inn on a hill, the doors open to what the Japanese call the plum rains. You come in from the communal shower down the hall, wrapped in a yukata, smiling, your long hair—and it is then, so long—in a towel. I pull you to the futon and show you a photograph clipped from a magazine: of a ring, of an idea, of a fortune it surely will be. For here we are, you and I. That photograph around your finger, the very same "O" your mouth made when you realized what I was asking.

 

From life to death, Bach and Gould.

 

I'm lucky to be alive. It's taken me my own lifetime to realize words are finite, talk is cheap, walk the talk, walk the walk, actions speak louder than words, that my minor interactions are yours, too, that I help to shape your life. That I can royally fuck you up. But I hope that isn't true. That's the truth.

 

Is it Bach or Gould that makes me want to tell you everything?

 

I am told children (you, like your Superman father of Superhearing) hear everything. I hope that's not true. But that's a lie.

 

Gould determined his own standards for how a piece was to be played, ignoring established traditions, relying implicitly on his reading, here and now, there and then, for transcendence. It is within each inimitable interpretation that he finds meaning and unity. Meaning and unity that will change with the next recording. Nothing lasts.

 

On a rooftop inside the Golden City overlooking the Thar Desert, we—you, me, Astrid the Belgian—sit each night for the sunset. As we smoke, the sun turns the sandy walls to honey. You peel tangerines in your lap, the smell soaking the arid air. I feel the burnt orange on my face and close my eyes to this place I call home for a while. Astrid sees ginger ghosts, for she is a witch, rising through the falling sun.

 

Flux is the only constant; each chord progresses both perfectly wrong and perfectly right.

 
You whisper to mommy that you don't want me to hear. You are afraid of what I will say. I will do anything to take that back.

 

I listen to the brief prelude once, twice, three times, on and on, each time as the first, in full anticipation of the note I know is coming.

 

We lie on a blanket in the back yard—our tiny, new back yard, eager to make it our own. However small, the grass is green.
You say—déjà vu.
I say—that's impossible. Neither of us has ever been here, like this, before.
You say—exactly. Déjà vu.

 

Some argue there is no passion in Gould's performance, the staccato phrasing bouncing the last note of the measure instead of floating into the next. But these arguing arguers are wrong. It's noggins over hearts.

 

They did not let you into the Czech Republic, and we are returned to Paris wondering what we have done wrong. I have no idea why I feel so lonely, as lonely as I've ever felt, in a hotel near Charles DeGaulle, you next to me in bed, tomorrow in doubt, our marriage new and untested.

 

Gouldian ecstasy, according to Geoffrey Payzant, is a merging of "self with the innerness of the music."

 

We sit for hours, not talking—reading, writing, sipping at black tea spiced with anise and milk, overlooking the lake. When you speak, you say: Who needs words?
 

There is an indefinite number of ways to see the same thing. But each is capable of ecstasy.

 

The night market bustles. Smells of frying pork and boiling noodles, coffin cakes and stinky tofu. A drooling drunk with bubbling, bruised lips and eczemaed ankles clears a path among the hundreds, locals and tourists shoulder to shoulder and hip to hip step aside to let the reeking giant pass into the smoke of incense from a tiny temple stuck between bowls of boiled mochi and oyster omelets.

 

Bruno Monsaingeon said of Gould, No supreme pianist has ever given of his heart and mind so overwhelmingly while showing himself so sparingly.

 

Glass falls and shatters across shower tile. In that tiny, white silence that follows, blood runs swift and wet down my arm, winding its way across the pink tile to the drain where it vanishes, followed by more and more and more, so much more. Through steam and broken glass, you wipe your hand across your mouth and laugh at me. "Who are you?"
I think we are finished.

 

A video by someone I don't know animates cigarettes—fourteen dancing Luckies!—to Gould's Bach. See this video and you will believe that cigarettes dance and that this is the way they dance, too.

In our new house there is a mirror that my wife calls the skinny mirror, like they put in clothing stores to make you look good in whatever you're wearing. In the mirror, my legs are hairy and thin poking out of ballooning white boxers, my ribs show despite folds of fat, the fat tire of my age and vice. I'm not right and I should lose a few pounds.

"Chris," she will say and wrap her arms around me from behind, "aren't you the skinny one."

 

Gould allows an unprecedented amount of stillness between each note, generations born and dying in that tiny white space. Critics argue he is taking liberties.

 

I see only her mistake—careless swipe of the hand, the broken glass, and the indulgent tears. Only storm at the disorder across the floor.

 

Legato/Connected

 

You toss the sheets from the bed, lie on your back, and wait. I want to feel you with my mouth, everywhere, every minute.

 

Staccato/Detached

 

I don't know what angers you, something I've done. You stomp away, threatening to catch the next bus, train, plane. It is my job to apologize and tell you that I love you. Why can't I?

 

Gould's is an interpretation. Bach did not include performance markings, instructions on how to play the piece. Yet, each note represents an absolute. A half note is held for two beats in common (4/4) time, no more, no less. An eighth note takes only that much—an eighth—of a measure. There is room for no more.

 

I plant your chubby feet in ocean water. Your first time. You say, no, I'm not ready, and Mommy takes you back to the hotel.

 

the absence of chaos                              

(Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum)

 does not equal

(Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum-bum)

the presence of order

 

The fan circulates the pine scent. On my knees, I scrub at the floor, at its imperfections and stains, until I remove its polyurethane finish. I have gone too far, but where there was chaos, there is now order.

 

It's the only song I can play on the piano.

 

I sit before the keyboard, reading every note, failing to create a relationship between the keys and my fingers.

 

The Idea of North/Real Meets Unreal: A photograph hangs on my wall, and I hope it always will. Music made real by what I saw that day. Gould. Bach. Were in my head, those delicate arpeggios playing slowly as only Gould plays them, falling like the snow made real.

 

A winter afternoon in northern Japan, a day before the new year. Snow falling as if it will never stop, slow and heavy. You (not you)—here memory blends and bends—fall back in the snow, oversized parka swallowing all but your (not your) face draped in fur. Snow falls so densely it looks impenetrable. But you (not you) run ahead, through it, towards the magnificent bridge.

 

Lovers and critics of Bach argue regularly and passionately over Gould's individualistic interpretations of the WTC, with Prelude I as the source of much disagreement.

 

We eat from street vendors every morning in front of Beijing Foreign Studies University, our nights in the dorms, no hot water, and a remarkably large bag of weed bought from Uighers in a restaurant where men threw plates at each other but completely ignored the four foreigners sucking on pipes and knocking back cheap wine and the best goddamn noodles we'd ever eaten.

 

And on the Internet in nerdy chat rooms and classical music blogs: they reduce Gould's interpretation to pure snark, the exchange of amateurish and hobbyist criticisms, missing the inherent joy of Gould's celebratory reading. Fuck off, you imbecile. I hate the way Gould cuts off the third beat of every measure. You are not only completely out of your fucking mind, but you are pure evil as well.

 

One thinks of all the hands / that are raising dingy shades / In a thousand furnished rooms.

 

The trick: the music creates a desire to know what Bach was looking at when he wrote this, but by the time it's over—you know, because you see it in your own life.

 

We lie on a blanket in the back yard—our trees framing the blue sky and clouds. A game of cards, tickle time, something sweet to drink. We wait for mommy to come home. And wait.


The Idea of North

 

Just an idea—there is rarely snow in our lives.

 

The Idea of South

 

I tell them yes. We agree—this life is not to be made a masquerade of, a foolishness we cannot take back. We have said yes in one voice in that coffee shop over an impulsive midday meeting (when did lunches together become impulsive?). We think we are ready for this conversation, the college of such swampy nowhere inviting me—a job, a desk and a classroom, bicycle days and water, an adventure. We will go, bravely. Then—your 3:00 am epiphany. You are not made for swamps, for a South you do not recognize, do not want to learn or know or warm to. You say you will let me go, if I want. There can be only regret. But there is no flawless promise. Time resumes—the world comes back.

 

The Idea of West

 

I am up in the leisure of no place to be as you prepare for work. Snow continues to fall—it's been like this since I arrived, always—before a lighted window. I have come west from the east, full of tales, liberty, youth matched only by yours, brother. Early morning: you have already chopped wood for the stove. Black coffee—no complaints, the earliest smoke I've ever had, just fine, I'm going back to bed when you leave. This is not my home—I know nothing of the Wild West, but I linger in its warmth, in its music.

 

The Idea of East (where I first heard, what I try to reclaim every time)

 

In a window—aren't they all—above the narrow street, bicycle bells and newspaper slaps, the rustle of skirts and plastic bags. A mountain I call home, a river run through, of infinite youth, of the person I will never be again.

 

Perfect common time. No sharps, no flats. Disagreement is impossible.

 

Life from a balcony. That is mine. Italy, so cold outside I sit with a bottle and a blanket over my shoulders against an old radiator, busy street three floors below, the night revealing. Behind me, you doze under a blanket pulled up over your face.

 

Measures 15-20 feel—I say feel not sound because the transition is physical, inside not out—both wrong and right, moving us through the subtlest variations, tiny changes in each measure, repeated once, but sweeping lifetimes into the air.

 

I like the photo of us at the beach more than any other—I don't know why. We are windblown and smiling, one step ahead of—faster.

 

Like a handheld camera moving slowly through a house, Gould's individualist interpretation turns a corner, opens a door, and arcs wide for a view of the backyard that we've seen everyday of our lives, just never quite this way before.

 

I turn a corner, and there you are, open arms for me. How is it possible that you never lose faith when I live in the truth that I will fail you? What horrible day awaits when you figure this out? You deserve better, and I'm going to love you deeper and more than you will ever ever know—this truth I know, too, and have no answer for.

 

Measures in this piece inhabit future space, their representations of the rhythms of life expectant, just enough to suggest change and momentum, like water over rocks, at any speed.

 

I should be getting smarter. But I spend another afternoon staring at a rotating fan, wishing I could have the day back.

 

And Glenn Gould, oddball savant, transfixed by his own accompanying hum, adds lightness to the whole endeavor, each note springing from the keyboard without the slightest bump or illogical turn.  Like the end of a good story, it is both likely and unexpected.

 

You showed me how to make a soft-boiled egg and placed them in eggcups, a formality both accommodating and opulent. And with a gentle but winning tap—

 

—the soft staccato phrases roll forward with calm, measured control.  Perhaps there is order in this life, a will we manage after all. 

 

I lean against the railing with my daughter in my arms, looking out over the ocean at bits of old shipwreck poking up like dead branches from a tree, telling her about her strong water element, when she wiggles a little and slips slightly in my grasp. Below, a crowd of tourists waits to climb the landmark lighthouse.

 

Another winter, spring, summer, autumn evening settles. And I choose Bach and Gould for its etude, as a prelude to the next. Amid snowfall, showers, heat and a gust of withered leaves. Of fog and dusty light, of sleepy sunsets and an orange morning consciousness. Of you in a hammock and you singing between blades of grass. Of you and you, and only you.

 

Mr. Lee's Custom Tailoring, Taipei, Taiwan.

Mr. Lee's assistant Mrs. Chau takes new measurements.

—It's been a few years, she says and smiles as she deftly wraps a yellow tape around my waist. You got fatter, she says as only the Chinese will tell you.

Mr. Lee sits watching a report about a two-year-old in Indonesia who smokes two packs of cigarette's a day when his cell phone rings. At first I don't recognize the tinny tones as music, don't hear song, but another everyday cell phone ringing. I wince, the speaker loud enough to raise the deaf from the dead. Car horns honk and scooters buzz outside. The air conditioner hums above. The television blows machine-gun gust commercials for energy drinks and cup ramen. Mrs. Chau smacks her lips and sniffles through a summer cold brought on by the relentless rains.

Then I hear: Bach's familiar C-major progressions roll out in remarkably pleasant tones, the tiny Nokia speaker capable of depth and resonance after all.

Mr. Lee finishes a sentence from his article, snaps the newspaper and folds it twice, resting it on his lap before answering the phone and lighting a cigarette in a single graceful motion. Mrs. Chau laughs and holds her thumb at 91cm. See—fatter. But don't worry, we make you look slim again.

 

The last three measures change the whole lot while respecting the strength of every measure that came before.

 

On our return flight to the States, a Malaysian woman goes into labor and gives birth. She has been sitting next to a doctor the whole time. The crew helps, then the sound of that baby wailing and a flight attendant pronouncing It's a girl! They pass around champagne and, for a moment, everyone forgets where they have left and where they are going.

 

Glenn Gould on the purpose of art: the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder.

 

You pop up on the water's surface, pink goggles and a gap-toothed smile, pure joy, my little swimmer. Your long, skinny legs (and all) kick behind you. You cry, Daddy, look at me! And I can't stop. And—

 

Impatient to assume the beauty that is: in this life. I hear it—certain certainties—you hear it. In the passions stirred, recalled in this winter, spring, summer, autumn moment of tranquility. I am moved and cling, infinitely suffering the same and the same and the same. But what I hear is what I hear. This effort to tell you of Bach is in vain, my life, this burnt-out end of another smoky day, yet—

 

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;