Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Gouldberg Variations

I wrote this for a magazine a while back, but as of right now, it still hasn't been published. I was reminded of it again by a recent conversation I had about recordings: are they gateways to musical enlightenment, joy and ecstasy, or destructive pieces of garbage that ruin music for everyone? These are, of course, the only two choices. The essay is about Glenn Gould, Goldberg Variations, and me, but gets at the question of recordings too....naturally, my answer is: it depends! Recordings can be great, but their influence, proliferation, and the way we listen to them, makes them terrible too...

The lights dim, the audience grows quiet, and the film begins. It starts so simply, so innocently: two tones, two octaves apart, ringing purely, seemingly alone in a dark room. The camera turns and the scene reveals their source, as the music unfolds slowly, methodically. At first from a distance, we see a man, aged beyond his years, crouched behind a piano, head scarcely visible rising above it. As we approach, we see him seated about a foot above the floor, arms bent unnaturally, his gargantuan glasses nearly touching the keys as he sways back and forth, appearing to speak each note as he articulates it with his long, spindly fingers. The scene is somewhat unsettling; the music, divine.

Thus began my visual introduction to Glenn Gould, at a “concert” screening of his 1981 Goldberg Variations film at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, in honor of the twentieth anniversary of his death.
By then my obsession with Bach, and Glenn Gould in particular, was already well in place. But I had never seen the piece performed live. And I had never seen Gould play, even on film. I was transfixed.

My first encounter with Gould came about eight years earlier with his 1955 recording of the same piece, and the first ever CD I ever called my own. Up until that point in my life, I listened almost exclusively to Madonna—courtesy of my older sister—and I accepted the new gift from my grandmother with skepticism. I had no idea how this strange, eccentric man and this wonderful piece would shape my musical life.

The piece itself is colossal. All of its thirty-two movements (aria, thirty variations, and aria da capo) are based loosely on a thirty-two note baseline. But it is no average listener who will hear the relationship between one variation and the next, as Bach uses everything in his big bag of tricks to create a variety of characters, moods, and harmonic turns throughout the piece. After the calm and peaceful aria, the first variation bursts forth (in many renditions, at least) energetically. There is a famous story—probably untrue—about Bach's writing the Goldberg Variations as entertainment for a rich Duke afflicted by bouts of insomnia. It is often mistold, perhaps aided by the pleasant nature of the aria, to suggest that the piece was meant to put the Duke to sleep. But the piece intersperses peaceful or tragic slow variations with fast, exciting variations where the keyboard player must cross hands in an often dazzling display of virtuosity. And there are the immensely rich “contrapuntal” variations (though they're all contrapuntal, in truth), canons on each successive interval written in three voices. The variations build to a dizzying climax in what would be the tenth and final canon—that Bach has replaced with a chorale based on the interwoven melodies of German street songs.

No one will ever play them like Gould. That's because, as far as I can tell, no one plays the piano the way he did. This is one of those infuriating facts about music, and about the piano, that has such a huge effect on our listening and perception but that we understand so little: just as different composers have characteristic styles or sounds that inevitably mark their music, different pianists can have different characteristic “sounds” that mark their playing as well. We rarely stop to consider just how puzzling this is. With only the varying speed of each individual hammer to control, Gould's playing is almost instantly recognizable as his own and no one else's, no matter what he's playing. It leaves the listener with the impossible illusion that each note he plays is a glowing pearl, shimmering with its own life. His Bach can almost sound as though it's coming from a different instrument, some sort of space-age piano where each note is specially prepared with extra energy and resonance.

Many commentators—critics and pianists alike—often describe Gould's playing as “dry” or “detached,” but for me, they rather miss the point. He generally avoids a traditional legato, where the notes are smoothly connected, like a singer holding a vowel sound between notes, but still plays with little or no space between adjacent notes. Each note is clearly articulated, but somehow the connection between the notes is still scrupulously maintained, giving some illusion of a legato connection.

It may not come as a surprise to you that I prefer Glenn Gould's playing of Bach to any other pianist. But what's odd is other pianists' Bach tends to bore me, even when I like it and find it perfectly worthy of imitation and praise. I've heard many recordings of the Goldberg Variations—Perahia, Dinnerstein, Schiff, Tureck, etc. etc.—but I can't say I listen to any of them for pleasure. Despite their differences, they all sound frighteningly similar to each other, next to Gould's recordings. That space-age piano really sets him apart.

When I first brought the Goldberg Variations to my own teacher, he warned me: beware of the Gould affect! The piece—over and above the rest of Bach's keyboard works—is so closely identified with Gould that it's impossible to escape (ultimately unflattering) comparisons whenever one plays it. People who know the piece very well potentially hear everything you do, and everything you don't do, through the lens of Gould's own playing. What a terrifying thought. To which I thought, I've been grappling with that my whole life!

For me, Gould's playing of Bach has been alternately inspiring, depressing, and naggingly ever-present. As a child I listened to his recordings obsessively, and they drove me to play Bach in a manner—and quantity—that few other young pianists would dream of. But even for the simplest of Bach's pieces, even when I felt completely in control, I found my playing to always lack that magical character inescapably present in his. That may seem like a pretty run-of-the-mill statement for an artist—someone else is better than I am?—but it's the seemingly intrinsic nature of that betterness that's surprising—and frustrating.

I was, of course, warned of the perils of imitation when I was young. Always encouraged to find my own voice, my own convictions, I always tried to approach each new piece I played like a blank slate. To a greater or lesser extent, this is what motivates all artists—no one wants to merely replicate someone else's ideas completely. But the temptation to imitate one's favorite artists is often overwhelming, and escaping that influence can be quite a task. My playing is always its best when it's full of my own ideas and convictions. But those ideas don't arise in a vacuum. Gould has left an indelible mark on my playing—one that, try as I might, I can never escape, because I can never let go of that dream of finding his magical sound. Wouldn't my own playing, my own ideas, be more vivid and more convincing with that immortal touch?

And so the burden fell on me to strike out and find my own Goldberg Variations separate from the “Gouldberg” Variations I know and love. I've now performed the piece twice, and one of the performances went about as well as I could have hoped. But I'm always listening, longing for that Gouldian articulation, and haunted by that golden sound that I know the piano is capable of and that I will never achieve.

And so, forty-seven minutes after the aria began, we hear its opening notes once more as Gould's hands move effortlessly over the keys one final time. After the climactic thirtieth variation, time suddenly grinds to a halt for the repeat of the hushed aria. The melody, now a distant memory, is only faintly recognizable in its wistful, nostalgic return. Some would say that the opening tune has been transformed, changed by everything that passed between its statements. But it is we who have been transformed, changed by the music we have heard. We will never hear it quite the same way again.


  1. um, i don't see anything, even a little ditty ...

  2. weird, i dunno what happened....should be fixed now

  3. really nice piece Sam. Send it somewhere else.

    But I don't like the blog post set-up: every recording crap or ecstasy . . and not clear whether you are exaggerating or denying exaggerating. Bit of a cop-out before such a nice essay.

  4. I bet you're feeling pretty darn bad about slamming Madonna (and my taste in music as a 12-year-old, thanks a LOT) after her triumph at the super bowl halftime show though...