Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Goldberg Variations

Life in four dimensions

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Yesterday, I happened to stumble across a review that the pianist Glenn Gould gave to the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Gould had performed on the soundtrack of George Roy Hill’s movie—which I haven’t seen—but he had mixed feelings about both the result and its source material, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them in public:

Slaughterhouse-Five has been brought to the screen with such fidelity that if you happen to be one of that black-humored author’s legion of fans, an outing at your neighborhood cinema will probably provide one of the cinematic highlights of the season…Vonnegut, of course, is to the current crop of college frosh as J.D. Salinger was to the youth of my day—a dispenser of those too-easily accessible home truths that one somehow never does get at home. And precisely because he quite ruthlessly exploits certain aspects of the generation gap—especially those widened by an inability to agree on forms of humor appropriate to the articulation of the human situation—I suspect that much of his work will date quickly and reveal that supposed profundities of an opus like Slaughterhouse-Five as the inevitable clichés of an overgeneralized, underparticularized view of humanity.

This is a little harsh, and in retrospect, Gould underestimated Vonnegut’s staying power, which turned out to be considerable indeed. I’ve occasionally resisted Vonnegut for some of the same reasons that he gives here, but I don’t think there’s any denying his skill and intelligence, even if his great talent was to put just the right words to feelings that his core group of fans already wanted to believe.

It isn’t clear what drew Gould to work on the movie version, for which he provided about fifteen minutes of music. In his review, he places particular emphasis on the novel’s treatment of time, which is what readers tend to remember best:

[The protagonist Billy Pilgrim] becomes, as Vonnegut puts it, “unstuck in time” and thereafter meanders back and forth across the expanse of his quite unexceptional life and finally uncovers an ability to project himself fourth-dimensionally as well. When going on Earth gets tough, Billy simply fantasizes an extraterrestrial existence [and] shacks up in a geodesic dome with the woman of his dreams.

The inhabitants of the planet Tralfamadore, who resemble sentient plumber’s helpers, exist in the fourth dimension, as Vonnegut explains through one of Billy Pilgrim’s letters:

The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was what when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

Purely by coincidence, I read Gould’s review on the same day that I saw an article in the journal Electric Lit titled “What Kurt Vonnegut Can Teach Us About Coping with the Internet.” Once you get past the obligatory clickbait headline, Jaya Saxena’s essay is a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on one of the unavoidable facts about our online lives, which is that all of our past selves exist on it simultaneously. Saxena writes:

On Earth, I am always quoting an article about health care in America. I am always calling someone “retarded” as a term of endearment. I am always telling people that I am safe and nowhere near Mumbai. I am always defending the concept of “Steak and Blowjob” day. I am always hugging a friend I see every day and never see anymore, bragging about stealing rum from a frat house, performatively announcing that I will be using Twitter to amplify other voices, telling someone I’ve cut out of my life that I love them…Anyone scrolling through my Facebook feed, which has existed since 2004, or who Googles enough to unearth my awful old blog, can see everything I’ve posted — every misguided opinion, every drunk photo and inside joke — with the clarity and presence of the moment I posted it. I am 17 and 24 and 31, forever.

But Saxena resists the solution presented by the Tralfamadorians, which is to focus on the good moments in life and ignore the rest, as “irresponsible,” proposing instead that we do the opposite: “We can remember that between one post a decade ago and now, there were endless versions of ourselves and others, changing and choosing. And that we will continue to do so in ways we can’t see until we look back.”

Gould was also critical of what he saw as “Vonnegut’s favorite message, [which] is that we must concentrate on the good moments and ignore the bad ones.” But by the early seventies, when his review of the movie appeared, Gould had come “unstuck in time” himself. He had retired from live performance nearly a decade earlier, preferring to concentrate on recording. In the studio, he could literally focus on the good moments and ignore the rest, splicing together performances out of the best parts of multiple takes—and you could even see the physical album itself as a representation, like the Rocky Mountains, of a work of art that an audience could only experience “like beads on a string.” Unlike a listener at a concert, I can drop the needle on my vinyl copy of Two and Three Part Inventions wherever I like. (I’m reminded of the character in Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach who hangs a record album on his living room wall so that he can enjoy the music all at once.) Gould also welcomed the chance to engage in a dialogue with his past selves in a way that would have been impossible before the advent of recording. He recorded The Goldberg Variations twice, a quarter of a century apart, and I’ve always wondered what a third version would have sounded like, if he hadn’t died at the age of fifty. And he might have had some useful insights into our online lives. In “The Prospects of Recording,” which he published shortly after his retirement from touring, Gould quoted a character from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Married Woman: “The first thing we require of a machine is to have a memory.” And he hinted obliquely at a way in which we can cope in a world that exists in four dimensions, whether we’re talking about all of history or simply about our own lives:

In the electronic age a caretaking comprehension of those encompassing chronicles of universal knowledge which were tended by the medieval scholastics—an encumbrance as well as an impossibility since the early Middle Ages—can be consigned to computer repositories that file away the memories of mankind and leave us free to be inventive in spite of them.

The confidence game

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Ludwig van Beethoven

Mastery comes in all shapes and sizes, but we’re often most impressed by the kind that announces itself to us from the start. Take Beethoven’s Emperor concerto. From that first, massive orchestral chord, followed by the piano’s cascading response, we know that we’re in the hands of a composer who is perfectly aware that he’s unlike any other man who ever lived. (Whenever I hear it, I think of a slightly restructured version of that famous quote from Douglas Adams: “Bach tells you what it’s like to be the universe, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be human, and Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven.”) The same is true of the opening of Mozart’s Jupiter symphony, with its threefold declaration of purpose that manages, even after endless listenings, to seem both inevitable and like nothing else you’ve heard before. And in both cases, it’s the expression of the composer’s confidence that grabs the listener, an intuitive sense that only a lifetime of thought and exploration could have resulted in such monumental simplicity.

In film, the same impulse sometimes lies behind the opening shot, which serves as a statement of intention. Kubrick—a meticulously intelligent craftsman who also loved showy, obvious effects—always strove to seize the audience from the first frame, and each of his films from 2001 onward begins with an unforgettable image. As in most other ways, Kubrick was ahead of his time: movies these days seem increasingly obsessed with their first five minutes, to the point where they dispense with opening credits altogether in their rush to deliver that first big moment. This is largely a response to the fact that we’re just as likely to catch movies at home than to see them in a theater. Once we’ve paid for our tickets and are seated in the dark with a row of strangers between ourselves and the exit, we’re likely to give a movie the benefit of the doubt for at least the length of the first act. If we’re watching it streaming on Netflix, we’re more liable to treat it like a television show, which has only a few minutes to grab our attention. And if it fails, we turn to our phones.

Stanley Kubrick

As a result, movies and television shows have become more front-loaded than ever, and the same trends—the omission of main titles, the emphasis on an early narrative hook, the need to blow us away with action and violence in the opening scene—can be observed in both. It’s even started to affect the novels we read, which, as Jonathan Franzen once noted, are no longer competing just with other books for the reader’s attention. Even literary fiction is increasingly expected to read like a mainstream bestseller; the opening of a book like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is all but indistinguishable from that of a paperback thriller. Yet this can also be a narrative miscalculation. Playwrights have known for a long time that it’s a mistake to start the play on a moment of high drama: you can afford to spend a few minutes introducing the viewer to your world before disrupting it, and a dramatic development holds more weight if you’ve established a baseline of normality. Start off too fast, and you’ve got nowhere to go, and the rest of the play can feel weighted down by the depressing realization that it’s never going to top its opening moments.

In his indispensable guidebook Adventures of the Screen Trade, William Goldman offers a long sample of a misconceived opening for a screenplay—a beautiful girl running for her life through a forest to escape a disfigured giant—and sums up his analysis of its faults by saying: “Well, among other things, it’s television.” But it’s even worse than that. Listen to the Emperor concerto again, and you know that it opens the way it does because Beethoven is superbly confident in his own gifts. The first twenty minutes of your average action movie speaks to the opposite, a kind of desperation, concealed by gunshots and relentless cuts, that the audience’s attention will stray for even a minute. It’s the difference between real confidence and, well, a confidence game. An aggressive beginning can be fine in its place, but it isn’t speed or even technical proficiency to which viewers respond: it’s that confidence. And they can sense its absence even through a flurry of activity, even as they sense its presence in openings as leisurely as those of Tokyo Story or The Magic Mountain or The Goldberg Variations. Show them confidence, and they’ll follow you anywhere, but without it, not even the loudest opening chord in the world can convince them to listen.

Performing and informing

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Joanna MacGregor

Personally, I see no meaningful difference between performing and informing. When you study the historical models for pianists, you find they spent their lives informing—often about music that had just been written, often music of their own or in their own transcription—and that was how they defined themselves.

One of the things I discussed in my lecture, and it’s on the blackboard, is the extent to which Bach was keenly aware of what was going on around him, of contemporary styles other than his own. You see it time and again in the Goldberg, and I find most composers today share that curiosity. But not performers. Young pianists get trapped into thinking all the time about technique and leave themselves a depressingly narrow view of repertoire, with no concern for their wider role as musicians.

Joanna MacGregor

Written by nevalalee

March 23, 2014 at 9:00 am

One short post about Glenn Gould

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Glenn Gould

As I write this, I’m listening to my copy of The Goldberg Variations, as recorded by Glenn Gould in 1955. It was one of the first albums I made a point of buying for my new record player, which shouldn’t come as a surprise: it occupies something of the same position in classical music that Kind of Blue does in jazz, as the one album that you’ll find in the collections of people who aren’t otherwise aficionados of that kind of music. Gould’s original recording remains one of the bestselling classical releases of all time, and it has served a source of inspiration for everyone from Richard Powers to Hannibal Lecter. Oddly enough, though, this is my first time really listening to it. I’ve always loved Gould’s second version, which he did in 1981, and it’s been a part of my life ever since college: I chose a few of the variations for the pianist to play at my wedding, and my wife and I walked down the aisle to the wonderful closing Quodlibet. For various reasons, however, mostly because it wasn’t available on compact disc for a long time, I never got around to sampling the earlier recording. And listening to it now, I can’t help but reflect a little on what it really means to grow and change as an artist.

It helps that Gould himself is such a fascinating figure. He sometimes claimed that if he hadn’t been a pianist, he might have been an author, and although the critical response to his own writings has been mixed, he had something of a novelist’s attitude toward his materials. “The piano,” Gould once said, “is not an instrument for which I have any great love as such…[but] I have played it all my life, and it is the best vehicle I have to express my ideas.” That’s how I suspect a lot of authors feel toward writing itself: I’m acutely conscious of its limitations, at least in my own hands, but at this point, I’m more or less stuck with it. For a certain kind of artist, what counts is the expression of the idea, and Gould always seemed to regard the act of performing as an obstacle between the music and our understanding of it. Hence the endless hours he spent in the studio, splicing takes into something that reflected his conception of the piece rather than any one performance, and his tendency to think of music in terms of shapes and patterns: “[Bach] was first and last an architect, a constructor of sound, and what makes him so inestimably valuable to us is that he was beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound who ever lived.”

Glenn Gould

As an unbelievably gifted prodigy and virtuoso, of course, Gould was particularly qualified to talk about the limitations of technique. It’s staggering to realize how young he was at his peak: he was only twenty-two when he recorded The Goldberg Variations for the first time, and he retired from public performance in his early thirties, after giving fewer than two hundred concerts. Much of his later career seems like a rebuke or renunciation of the early acclaim he received, and his decision to ultimately revisit his most famous recording was a statement in itself, an acknowledgment that cleverness and craft can take an artist only so far. It’s often said that there are just two kinds of prodigies, musical and mathematical, since these are the two fields of human excellence in which raw ability can triumph over inexperience. But there’s more to greatness than simple technical skill, and to listen to the two versions of the Variations is to sense an additional quarter century of experience coming through between the notes, along with the “groans and croons” of which the reviewer for The New Penguin Guide complained, as Gould quietly hummed to himself along with the music.

When I play Gould’s second recording just after the first one, the effect is something like the feeling I get from a documentary like Ballets Russes, which juxtaposes the image of a dancer at age twenty with the same man sixty years later—a combination that never fails to bring me to tears. Gould’s later Variations are slower, more contemplative, less concerned with impressing the listener than with teasing out every last drop of nuance. For someone who only dreams of such virtuosity, it’s a reminder of how much room there is for interpretation by a great performer, and how much can be added by three decades of experience. Gould died from a stroke at age fifty in 1982, shortly after recording his second version. If he’d lived, he’d be in his early eighties by now, and perhaps ready for one last run at his most famous work. It’s tempting to imagine what that final progression would have been like, using the first two recordings as a clue for the unknowable third, and although we’ll never hear it for ourselves, we can dream about it, and I’d like to think that we’ll get the answer in another life.

Written by nevalalee

February 12, 2014 at 9:38 am

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