Here is another toccata-like section of The Goldberg Variations in which playing on the two keyboards of a harpsichord would have come in mighty handy. Translating Bach’s tumble of music to the single keyboard of a piano calls up for me a line from an old spiritual, “Ain’t got time to die” – Now, won’t you git out o’ma way! (to praise my Jesus, it continues). That what each hand seems to be saying to the other as they vie for the same real estate on the piano! The music is ebullient, impulsive, uninhibited. A great deal of planning often goes into improvisation, but this is a case of the most tightly composed music being imbued with a spontaneous quality.

Goldberg Variations, 20 (Spontaneous)

Spontaneity, like everything else it seems, is one of those qualities that is best balanced with its opposite. A life of continuous spontaneity would be chaotic without some effort to make plans. Yet, if every moment was planned out and there was no space for the spiciness that spontaneity can add, well, that would just be boring. From chocolate to setting goals, finding balance seems to always be the right answer.

But it’s scary to suddenly veer off course in a moment of spontaneity.  If you do, you just might find yourself in the land of unlikeness that W.H. Auden wrote about at the end of his his book-length poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness.
You will see rare beasts and have unique experiences.
He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety.
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh.
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

Follow him…He is…You will…Seek him..Love him.  Auden is directive and sure and we don’t often experience that kind of clarity.  To do any of these things would require a degree of trust that probably isn’t entirely comfortable for any of us. We would have to throw off our cloak of perceived safety and open the door to spontaneity.

How to define those named places in Auden’s poetry? Land of Unlikeness, where people are not like us, but a land which might offer us eye-opening experiences? Kingdom of Anxiety, a place in which we should take more time to look for God? World of the Flesh, the world as we know it where all life’s occasions, even the most mundane, might be seen as reasons to dance for joy? Auden’s clarity raises so many questions. For Christians, of course, the answers come in Auden’s echo of The Gospel of John (14:6) – He is the way, the truth, the life.


Save the Date: Thursday, June 22, 7:30 p.m. Sophia Vastek and Sonya Sutton, playing music for two pianos by Bernstein, Gershwin, Glass, and Reich. With special guest Joan Phalen singing songs of Bernstein and Sondheim. A change of venue – losing the intimacy of a house concert, but gaining the space and acoustic of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, 4201 Albemarle Street, NW. Donations gratefully accepted to benefit the work of empowering the homeless that is done by Samaritan Ministries of Greater Washington.

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 given to me on January 5, 2016.


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