The “black pearl” is how famed harpsichordist Wanda Landowska described the 25th part of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. If we take away our culture’s equation of dark=bad, we might see instead that black absorbs light, just as white reflects it, and find that we are invited into the black pearl’s lustrous, iridescent orb with this music.
The preacher last Sunday in the church where I was playing told of a friend who had recently become Dean of a law school in the upper midwest, in one of many cities that has experienced too many shootings of young African-American men. This Dean soon realized that there was no mechanism for teaching listening skills to his school’s lawyers-in-the-making, and he began a program of partnering his students with city high school students which required the law students to really listen and work to understand what these young African-Americans were saying about their lives.
I have to believe that once people really listen to each other the only result possible is a deeper understanding of the other’s way of thinking and interpreting the world around them. Surely then there is an appreciation, rather than a fear, of what makes us different. Preconceptions block our ability to listen. Black=bad? Setting aside those preconceptions takes work, sometimes uncomfortable work that might lead us to question many things we have been taught to think. (more on that topic: Invisibilia podcast, implicit bias)
Variation 25 is the longest of all the Goldberg Variations and the third and final time Bach writes in G Minor. Its adagio tempo and minor key create, perversely, the work’s emotional high point, in the opinion of some, including me. Minor does not have to mean sad – let go of another preconception! A slow tempo certainly doesn’t imply a lack of energy. Quite the opposite. In this music I imagine someone leaning forward, drinking in the nuances of my story and emotions. Someone who is really listening.
The music reaches introspectively inward and passionately outward at the same time. It is slow and incredibly complicated with ornamentation and chromaticism. It reminds me to take time to understand the complications of another’s thinking. We listen with much more than just our ears, however. We absorb the light of another person when we listen also with our hearts.
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.