Irreverence

What emerges from all that chaotic experimentation of the previous Variation? Irreverence! Not what anyone would have expected from the dourly-depicted J.S. Bach, devout Lutheran and Cantor of Leipzig. What a refreshing insight we are given here, one which humanizes his monumentalism.

Four part harmony, jocular in tone, this variation is a spirited chorale-like ending akin to those found in his cantatas. Described as a quodlibet – “what you please” – the music has suggestions of two old folk songs, Ich bin so lang night be dir guest (“I have been so long away from you”) and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben (” Cabbage and beets have driven me away”). 

Goldberg Variations, 30 (Irreverence)

BUT, as you can hear, I completely failed with this one. I had wanted to capture some sense of a slightly drunken, mildly bawdy gathering of Bachs in 17th century Germany.  Beer steins raised, laughter, and hearty folk songs. Listening to what I recorded eight months ago now, I find that I was in a sedate frame of mind that didn’t serve what I was hearing in my mind’s ear very well. I will certainly go back and re-record this one day soon when I’m feeling less polite.

Next week, the opening Aria returns and brings us full circle from Innocence to Wisdom. Alpha to Omega. The journey will end where it began, but not before a bit of irreverential fun that reminds us not to take ourselves or life’s complications too seriously.

Peace,
Sonya

Read more: National Public Radio-Bach’s Enduring Enigma


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.

 

Creativity

Creativity is messy. Its path is littered with the failures and incoherence of experimentation. Though our creative efforts can lead to something beautiful or useful on occasion, acting on those creative impulses is about the effort more than the result, don’t you think? This particular variation, building on the freneticism of the previous one, has a lot going on.  It seems like Bach might be exploring an incoherent stage of his creative process.  What will emerge from all this experimentation in the final variation?

Goldberg Variations, 29 (Creativity)

A few years ago I saw and wrote about a documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” about pianist Seymour Bernstein and directed by actor Ethan Hawke. Bernstein doles out wisdom in heaping spoonfuls in this film, and his wisdom goes from how the two-note slurs in a Beethoven Sonata can be played more beautifully to the purpose of being creative. He talks about learning to integrate his creative self into his daily life, a simple life that is extraordinarily focused on simply being kind and caring enough to want to bring out the best in his music and in people he meets. Music is really only a vehicle for living his creative life. That vehicle could just as easily have been nursing or engineering or parenting.

Bernstein tries to dispel the idea that art only comes from great suffering. He makes the case for practice – the detailed hard work of really focusing, with great care, on the preparation of something – being the thing that informs one’s art. While I do believe something very special can happen “in the moment,” a magical moment doesn’t often happen without preparation. The preparation might be as hard as thousands of hours of practice, or as simple as being open-minded enough to act on a untested idea. In fact, creativity seems to call upon so many of the things I’ve been writing about for the past 30 weeks – persistence, openness, playfulness, listening, curiosity, fearlessness, resiliency, perspective…

Creativity is about more than having imaginative ideas…it’s about the work of bringing those ideas to life in a process that uses both sides of our brain. Our creative impulses originate internally, but with plenty of external help coming from conversations and opportunities of time and place. It requires a level of rebelliousness, but the rebellion born of an appreciation for tradition, and a discipline which emerges from passion.

There’s also the element of chance. The film about Seymour Bernstein came about because the 88 year old pianist happened to get seated next to Ethan Hawke at a dinner party, where the two discussed their fears – Bernstein’s stage fright that had led him to give up concertizing 37 years earlier, and Hawke’s fear that his life as an actor is meaningless.  From those fears came a life devoted to teaching and believing in the power of creativity, and this brilliant film.

Thinking of practice as art was a revelation to me. One of the young, extraordinarily talented students in the film talks about learning to really listen to people, because he has learned to listen so carefully to the music he is practicing. We are all creating our lives each day, ideally practicing the details that make us kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately, more whole.

Peace,
Sonya


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.

 

 

Resilience

I wrote last fall about the name of a group, The Carya Ensemble, that I was forming with a colleague to sing in the U.K. this summer – singing this very week, in fact, for services at Lichfield and St. David’s cathedrals. Carya, I had learned, is a botanical genus which includes hickory and pecan trees, and a particular characteristic of this grouping of plant life is resiliency.  To be resilient implies, as it does for trees, a flexibility to adapt to our environment and the ability of our wounds to heal in ways that build on the strength of scar tissue.

Goldberg Variations, 28 (Resilience)

The trills in this variation are relentless, providing an inner energy that fuels sparks of detached eighth notes. Pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, in his NPR musings on The Goldberg Variations, uses words like “zany” and “manic” to describe this music, and conjures up the image of Mickey Mouse’s endless supply of brooms in Fantasia’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” section. Chaos ensues, but Mickey survives, resilient as always.

I don’t recommend manic behavior as a survival technique, but there’s something to the idea that, as with those trills, we should just keep moving – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Getting unstuck from unhealthy behaviors, grudges, toxic “friends” or dulling places in our lives seems like a good first step on the path towards resilience.

Peace,
Sonya


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.

 

 

Playfulness

Goldberg Variations, 27 (Playfulness)

Buoyancy is the word that first came to mind for this variation, but that’s not a word I could easily use in the context of these posts. Though the music itself made me feel buoyant as I played it, that’s hardly a personal quality to develop. “Buoyant” is a term usually associated with science and Archimedes, as swimming, jumping on a trampoline, or seeing astronauts in space reminds us.

Even scientifically then, buoyancy implies a lightness of being and a sense of playfulness. The word’s second meaning now comes into better focus – that quality of buoyancy which describes someone as cheerful and optimistic.

Musically, Variation 27 is a game of Follow the Leader.  Bach composed it as a canon at the ninth, one note more than an octave, which almost has one part saying, “follow me,” and the other responding, “I can go even higher than you!” It’s all in good fun, having temporarily escaped from the serious bass line’s weight.

When we are playful, we are lighter.  We’ve let go of routine and effort and a need to win.  If we have to win, we aren’t really being playful, are we? Moments of playfulness keep us from taking ourselves, or anything else, too seriously. We are briefly unmoored from responsibility, importance, from a need to control. We risk making a fool of ourselves, of course, but in taking a risk like that we might just find ourselves floating away from those people and problems that threaten to drown us.

Peace,
Sonya


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.

Perspective

Staying focused on important things amid the chaos that too often surrounds us is hard for a lot of people. As I practiced this 26th Goldberg Variation it was nearly impossible to keep my mind on the stately slower moving notes – quarter, quarter…eighth, quarter, quarter…eighth, quarter, quarter.  Because swirling all around those notes is a cloud of 16th notes that never stops.  Technically, those faster notes are more difficult, but musically, well, they are just not that important.

Goldberg Variations, 26 (Perspective)

I’m told that it is in fact impossible to multi-task.  Our brains might shift instantaneously from one task to another, but we can’t actually do two things at once. Considering the complexities of playing an instrument, cooking a meal, or raising small children, I think most of us have a hard time believing that, but I won’t argue with science, which has studies to prove this is so.

What seems clear is that at any given instant, one thing is more important than another and knowing for yourself what that thing is makes a difference in how you manage your time and stress levels, contributing to a sense of being grounded – that feeling of connection with the reality of who and where you are. Calibrating your perspectives to those realities can only help you achieve a better balance among all the things that are competing for your attention.

Your perspective on what’s important is not my perspective, but that’s what makes the world all the more interesting.  We each bring our unique points of view to the table, and in that context even the swirling notes can have meaning.

Peace,
Sonya


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.

 

Listening

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.

Goldberg Variations, 25 (Listening)

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.

Peace,
Sonya


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.

Graceful

Because Grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Grace finds beauty in everything. Grace finds goodness in everything.

Words from a song, unsurprisingly titled Grace, recorded by the rock band U2 in 2000.

To be graceful implies an organic shape that demonstrates an ease of movement. The slender branches of a weeping willow or the willowy limbs of a ballerina both move with a flexibility that we would call graceful. But those U2 lyrics above point to a way of being that we might describe as “full of grace.” Think of those who you see as grace-filled, and surely they are people who have an ability to find beauty in everything. They are the people who are most truthfully described as beautiful.

Goldberg Variations, 24 (Graceful)

What fills you up? Better to be full of good things, like joy and gratitude and hope and mindfulness – i.e. the intention of being present to the people and places and experiences in each moment of our days. I want to avoid filling up with things that make me fearful or scornful or deceitful. Do you agree that we probably have a better chance to be changed, and to become agents of change, when we are cheerful, faithful, and merciful, than when we are boastful, distrustful, or resentful?

Best then to avoid filling up on the junk food of fretfulness, reproachfulness, or doubtfulness. Healthy living requires us to be fruitful, purposeful, and peaceful. That is where our saving grace will be found. That’s when we’ll feel most graceful.

Peace,
Sonya


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.