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.

Introspection

Bach shifts to G minor for the first time in Goldberg’s 15th variation, after 14 previous variations in sunny G major.  A minor key does not automatically mean “now we’re sad” in music, but there’s no doubt that Bach has moved from the external, wide-armed optimism of what came before to withdrawn introspection in this variation.

Goldberg Variations, 15 (Introspective)

It is composed as a canon at the fifth, that most open of intervals, confusing our ear with an inconclusiveness that begs to be filled in with an orienting major or minor third.  There is an openness between this variation’s imitative musical lines which invites introspective self-reflection.

Glenn Gould, the great Canadian pianist whose intimacy with The Goldberg Variations gives authority to anything he has said about them, regarded this particular variation as “the most severe and rigorous and beautiful canon.  It’s a piece so moving, so anguished—and so uplifting at the same time— I’ve always thought of Variation 15 as the perfect Good Friday spell.” While we are nearly two weeks removed from Good Friday in liturgical time, we are never really very far from Good Friday in the reality of life’s suffering.

Which is why we petition God, in one of the Episcopal Church’s most beautiful prayers, said during Compline, to “shield the joyous.”  But I digress.

Look inside. What do you see? Some branches of philosophy tell us that what we see – i.e. whatever our consciousness tells us we are experiencing – is true. Indeed, that those observations are infallible, because they can’t be proven untrue! Feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, distress, embarrassment, concern…those are all easy enough to determine for ourselves. Most of the time we don’t have to look very far inside to diagnose how we’re feeling. We just know.

But look a little deeper. What about feelings of jealousy, shame, disconnection? What about those prejudices and biases lurking behind our actions and ideas? How much time do we spend observing others, gauging their emotional state by their words and gestures, judging the actions of others without doing the same for ourselves? Look inside even more deeply. Is that hypocrisy hiding out in the corner? Could smugness and self-satisfaction be covering up bits of racism or gender bias? Does conviction mask cruelty?

Ugh, spending time introspectively could get uncomfortable. As in all things, however, the truth sets us free.  Admitting hypocrisy or smugness clears the way for change. Self-deception, we might discover, cloaks some things worth uncovering, such as our ability to be kind, the potential to be generous in our assumptions, and just as important (more so even?), our worthiness to be loved.

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.

Vagueness

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.

Goldberg Variation 6 (Vagueness)

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.

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 gifted to me on January 5, 2016.