My near-sighted eyes have depended on contact lenses and glasses to function in our detailed world since my early teen years. Blurriness has always been an uncomfortable state, one to be avoided, but I noticed not so long ago that I can differentiate between closely related shades of color more easily without my glasses. Hmm.
Which made me wonder then about impressionistic art and the intentionally blurry visions created by artists such as Degas and Van Gogh, often so colorful and conducive to seeing beyond the details to the essence of a landscape or the movement in a scene. It’s not unlike something called Schenkerian analysis, which music students apply to a piece with the hope of somehow uncovering the essence of a work’s tonal structure by taking away as many of the notes as possible. The details are blurred into the background and underlying forms and meanings sometimes emerge.
Interesting that just as photography was taking off in the late 19th century, recording the details of life with great clarity, artists such as Renoir and Monet were finding ways to blur those details in their paintings. Ambiguous tonalities and freely formed musical works picked up on this same desire, particularly in works by Debussy and Ravel (though they are both known to have rejected the term “impressionism” for the own styles).
No one is ever going to describe any moment in Bach’s music as “impressionistic,” I’m quite certain. He was a master of clarity and precision. Still, the idea of being vaguely lost in a blurry world came to me as I played Variation 6 because its imitative lines of music are a step apart – i.e. a canon at the second, which creates momentary dissonances between notes right next to each other.
The music becomes temporarily blurry, not, as is often the case in most music, with the intention of creating a dissonance and welcome resolution, but rather to suggest a fleeting moment of indecision or of feeling lost. And what’s so wrong with that? Occasional indecision gives us more time to fully weigh both sides of a decision. Being lost sometimes leads us to places or people we would never have encountered otherwise.
I heard a story that utterly charmed me not long ago. A group of millennials, all poised to answer the question of the moment with their pocket oracles, otherwise known as their phones, were stopped by one of the group who said, “Wait, let’s not know for a while.” Occasionally spending some time in vagueness just might remind us to live more often in wonder, and to peel away the details of certainty while we delve down to the essence of what is good.
I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was gifted to me on January 5, 2016.