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A State of Wonder, Part Two: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Glenn Gould

9 Nov

I have two recordings of Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the piano. The first was made in 1955, the year before I was born, and the second in 1981, shortly before the pianist’s death, the same year that I left London and went to live in Crete. The second version is quite different from the first, and lasts several minutes longer. I think of the earlier recording as a day-time piece, and the second as nocturnal. They are both sublime, but in the first Gould is the young concert pianist on a mission, and he dazzles with his technical brilliance, his impeccable sense of timing. By the time he made the later recording he had nothing to prove, he had achieved everything a virtuoso pianist might reasonably be expected to achieve and more, and while there is no trace of complacency to the playing, it exudes a certain detached or entranced quality. Possibly the second version is more exacting, more profound, he lingers over the notes of the first variation with a confidence that is not to be confused with arrogance, a confidence that conveys a total acquaintance with, and mastery of, the music, a familiarity with every phrase, every musical innuendo, the fruit of years of study, and he is able to hover, and to hoist the listener into a space above and beyond the music, to linger there in a state of wonder, a phrase the pianist himself made use of. The album notes carry a quote from Gould: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

There are two photographs of the artist, taken in the respective years the recordings were made. In the first he is young, quite handsome even, or dashing, his hair flopping over his eyes, while in the later photo his hair has thinned and he is wearing glasses. In both pictures his concentration is almost palpable, and in both his mouth is open, not significantly, not gawping, but open, as though he was concentrating so hard that he had forgotten to close it, or had opened it to say something, and forgotten his lines – or to groan (his recordings are marked by these occasional groans, which should be disturbing, but are not).

Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach keep me company for long hours, while I sit at my desk. He is a faultless companion, especially when I am struggling to impose order on my thoughts. I would like to catch some of the fallout from his playing, inform my own thought with some of that rigour, that clarity of intent, employ his music as a force-field against the fatigue that overtakes me as I type away, as a weapon against the viral dance, against the affliction of sleeplessness, in an inverse sense to the one in which they were first intended: for, ironically, Bach is supposed to have written the Goldberg Variations around 1741 to ease his patron, Count Keyserling’s nights of insomnia.


From The Vagabond’s Breakfast pp 133-4










Beethoven and all that jazz

7 Nov

After recent posts on Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Jazz it is time for a quick note on Beethoven. For years I didn’t listen to Beethoven at all, finding too much of his orchestral music overdramatic, overstated, overblown. Then, a few years back I acquired a version of the recordings made by the Busch Quartet in the 1930s (recordings made before and after the quartet’s re-location from Germany to London, and then to New York during World War Two). Despite the audible crackling (this was before they were digitally remastered in 2008, and the interference removed) the recordings convey an astonishing degree of sensitivity and pathos. Pathos is a word that seems most apt with regard to Beethoven, a man who supposedly died while raging against the dying of the light, fist raised to the heavens – and during a thunderstorm for good measure. To which end, here is an animated bar-graph score of the Grosse Fuge op. 133.



The other night I caught the opening episode of new TV series that focuses on the history of the symphony (and is titled, helpfully, Symphony), that ultimate collision of form and content that emerged with Haydn and Mozart and was taken by the scruff of the neck and booted into the nineteenth century by Beethoven with his Eroica symphony in 1804. Beethoven was a republican (but not in the American sense) and an early supporter of Napoleon (but not once he had proclaimed himself Emperor) and reputedly told one of his patrons: “There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Beethoven.” Quite a self-believer then.

When I was a wild young thing, thumping out Beethoven and Brahms fiercely and passionately but with negligible technique, my piano teacher once played me a section of the opus 111 piano sonata and told me to listen how, with its double-dotted rhythms it pre-empted jazz (or ragtime) figures that only emerged a century later. I don’t know how accurate his analysis was,  but whenever I listen to those crazy lilting rhythms now – which break in after nearly seven minutes of the clip below – I can’t help wondering what the audiences of his day must have made of this music: they can’t ever have heard, or even imagined, anything like it. And that is something that we miss altogether, as we have the whole of intervening musical history acting as a kind of barrier, and what we hear, we hear through the filter of all the music that has been composed and played since his time.

Historically, Beethoven has been best remembered for his symphonies (as the current TV series illustrates), for the fabulous unifying Ode to Joy from the ninth and ironically (since we were at war with his fatherland) for the famous introduction to the fifth symphony, now forever linked to the wartime speeches of Winston Churchill. But it is the last quartets and sonatas that I, as a listener, return to, although more and more I prefer to listen to jazz.





Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Shane MacGowan, Charles Bukowski and all

5 Nov

Young Tom Waits

Can you do a music review before listening to the music? Let’s see.

Yesterday I received through the post the new CD by Tom Waits, though I have not had the nerve to play it yet. I am not sure I even want to. I do not know quite how I feel about Mr Waits. There is an element of the showman about him that I don’t quite trust.

Unlike Mr Dylan, who can get away with the line “Me, I’m just a song and dance man” because he is so evidently much more, with Waits one might be forgiven for suspecting that such a self-diagnosis would be spot on. The talent is undeniable, and so is the musical range, the technical understanding and the skilful use of genre. The intense and earthy songs of heartbreak and loss on the album Heart attack and Vine once provided me with the perfect music to get miserably drunk to, alone and gloriously despairing, and there have been hundreds of versions of the same songs since. He does slow and sad and he does loud and fast. Both are good, though with the latter he does tend to shout.

Charles Bukowski

I am willing to accept, perhaps, that my difficulty with Tom Waits is that I over-identified with his music for too long, and the problem lies with me rather than with him. And of course I cannot forgive the fact that he was never the real down-and-out he sang about (although he did sing about the lifestyle well). He is linked forever with Bukowski in the mythology I spun about myself in the 1980s (when I was in my twenties) and I cannot read a single line of Bukowski these days, I just find it laughable.  Quite apart from his having a face like a jam doughnut. Waits and Bukowski, the dream team (though oddly, Bukowski’s favourite singer-songwriter was Randy Newman, who I liked in my teens but afterwards found rather tame). All these blokes, trying to prove how close to the edge they lived. Maybe I never took either Waits or Bukowski that seriously, they just summed up a lifestyle, but failed to go much deeper.

Shane MacGowan of course, he was another. Maybe he still is. Someone props him up every now and then and he stumbles onto a stage and sings a few songs in an increasingly incomprehensible and strangulated voice, but Christ he had a gift, as a songwriter if nothing else. I met him once, in a bar in Camden. I was always bumping into famous people when I was a drunk. He seemed a decent enough bloke, just fed up with the attention, enjoying a bit of quiet time, I could respect that.  His songs with The Pogues became the anthems of my treks on foot across Spain towards the end of the eighties, just as Waits and Dylan had provided the lyrics of my hikes earlier in the decade, across Greece and Italy and France. Roberto Bolaño loved The Pogues too.

And what about Lennie? Leonard Cohen, I mean. I listened to him ardently when I was fourteen, fifteen, then went right off him until I rediscovered his music in my forties. I found out that his best songs can survive multiple replays in ways that Waits’ can never stand up to. And his concert at the Cardiff Arena a few years ago was one of the three best concerts (along with Lila Downs at Peralada and Mariza at Palafrugell) that I have seen in well, the last decade (and that includes two concerts by Dylan himself). I might have a Leonard Cohen song playing at my funeral  – yes, I’ve thought about that, such is the dreadful urge towards oblivion, guided by Cohen singing, now which was it, ‘Dance me to the end of love’ or ‘Take this waltz’? I can never decide. Not that I’ll be listening.




But Tommo? He seems very together. Something that you could hardly claim for Cohen, whose biography I read a few years ago and who came across as terminally screwed up, for all the Zen stuff. Or maybe not. Maybe that is just an asinine remark, maybe we are all screwed up, and that part of Cohen’s beauty (and his charm) is that his pain has so indelibly marked him that we are touched, as it were, by the fall-out from his own menagerie of perfume, lace and broken violins, and we can sink into a delectable narcotic haze of suffering by proxy. Certainly the teenage girls in bedsits who were deemed to be his early audience were not alone. This teenage boy was spellbound through long nights with Songs from a Room. And, if I am honest, still can be. He offers just that much more: I’ll call it a flake of the ineffable, because it sounds kind of Cohenesque.

But as for Tom, my internal critic just won’t shut up. Blanco likes the songs, enjoys the ironic melancholy, loves the stuff about drunken sailors and jumping ship to Singapore – and, as an aside, in many of the songs from Rain Dogs, Waits’ best album to date, there are strong personal associations with Thomas Pynchon’s fabulous novel V. which, along with Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night, was another of Blanco’s travelling companions from the 1980s but he has problems incorporating Waits into the same illustrious hall of greatness at which Dylan and Cohen hold court. Maybe Blanco will stand corrected after a few listens of Bad as Me. I kind of hope so now. Will report back.






Lucifer in Starlight

21 Oct

Nico on album cover of 'Chelsea Girls', certainly not to be confused with 'Made in Chelsea'

I was flicking through web pages, looking for nothing in particular, which in ordinary life tends to invoke a receptive and often interesting state of receptivity. Moreover I was tired, and therefore probably susceptible to sentiments that I might normally guard against (but probably do not).

Anyhow, I stumble across a poem by David St. John, not a poet I remember having read before, and fell straight for it: a musical poetry of desire, of neglect, of forgetting – in which nothing sounds quite right: the man at the party is actually saying he prefers Athens to Rome; the woman whose vest “belled below each breast”(?); the disconnect between what he is saying of Rome and what is dancing urgently beneath the text, tugging at memory. What is going on here, as the narrator jumps from place to place, zone to emotional zone? And who is he? Yet I read on, lulled by the easy rhythms as the lines spilled across the page through various absurdities (“it was here I’d chosen / To live when I grew tired of my ancient life / As the Underground Man”) – Velvet Underground?

And then the extraordinary fluidity of the lines that follow the arrival in his apartment at 3.00 a.m. of Nico, with her sunken eyes, Marlene Dietrich vowels, not only in her Velvets persona but more specifically as the lowing chanteuse of the Chelsea Girls album, junk-queen heroine of my adolescence, her somber drone exciting me with visions of decadent and lonely immolations in seedy hotel rooms, dark nights of impossible desire, and the soul-barren broken wanderlust which would soon become mordant reality, and who:

Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost

            Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”

And deep within the pupil of her left eye,

            Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging

Lantern rocking the waves,

I could see, at the most remote end of the receding.

            Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,

At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,

                        A tiny, dangling crucifix –

Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting

            In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …


So, I will copy the poem in full, after all, although I have to keep it in italics, otherwise WordPress will re-align the text. The citation is from the eponymous poem by Meredith (1828-1909) which can be found here, the opening lines of which are: ON a starr’d night Prince Lucifer uprose. / Tired of his dark dominion swung the fiend / Above the rolling ball in cloud part screen’d,  / Where sinners hugg’d their spectre of repose.



Lucifer in Starlight


Tired of his dark dominion … 

—George Meredith


It was something I’d overheard

One evening at a party; a man I liked enormously

                     Saying to a mutual friend, a woman

Wearing a vest embroidered with scarlet and violet tulips   

          That belled below each breast, “Well, I’ve always   

Preferred Athens; Greece seems to me a country

                     Of the day—Rome, I’m afraid, strikes me   

As being a city of the night … ”

          Of course, I knew instantly just what he meant—   

                     Not simply because I love

Standing on the terrace of my apartment on a clear evening   

          As the constellations pulse low in the Roman sky,   

The whole mind of night that I know so well

                     Shimmering in its elaborate webs of infinite,

Almost divine irony. No, and it wasn’t only that Rome

          Was my city of the night, that it was here I’d chosen   

                     To live when I grew tired of my ancient life

As the Underground Man. And it wasn’t that Rome’s darkness   

                     Was of the kind that consoles so many

          Vacancies of the soul; my Rome, with its endless history   

Of falls … No, it was that this dark was the deep, sensual dark

                     Of the dreamer; this dark was like the violet fur   

Spread to reveal the illuminated nipples of

                     The She-Wolf—all the sequins above in sequence,   

The white buds lost in those fields of ever-deepening gentians,

          A dark like the polished back of a mirror,

                     The pool of the night scalloped and hanging   

Above me, the inverted reflection of a last,

                                                                Odd Narcissus …

                                           One night my friend Nico came by   

Close to three a.m.—As we drank a little wine, I could see

                     The black of her pupils blown wide,   

The spread ripples of the opiate night … And Nico

          Pulled herself close to me, her mouth almost

                     Touching my mouth, as she sighed, “Look … ,”

And deep within the pupil of her left eye,

          Almost like the mirage of a ship’s distant, hanging

                     Lantern rocking with the waves,

I could see, at the most remote end of the receding,

          Circular hallway of her eye, there, at its doorway,   

At the small aperture of the black telescope of the pupil,

                               A tiny, dangling crucifix—   

Silver, lit by the ragged shards of starlight, reflecting

          In her as quietly as pain, as simply as pain …

Some years later, I saw Nico on stage in New York, singing

          Inside loosed sheets of shattered light, a fluid   

Kaleidoscope washing over her—the way any naked,

                     Emerging Venus steps up along the scalloped lip

          Of her shell, innocent and raw as fate, slowly   

Obscured by a florescence that reveals her simple, deadly

                               Love of sexual sincerity …

          I didn’t bother to say hello. I decided to remember   

The way in Rome, out driving at night, she’d laugh as she let

          Her head fall back against the cracked, red leather

                               Of my old Lancia’s seats, the soft black wind   

Fanning her pale, chalky hair out along its currents,

          Ivory waves of starlight breaking above us in the leaves;   

The sad, lucent malevolence of the heavens, falling …

                     Both of us racing silently as light. Nowhere,   

Then forever …

                                           Into the mind of the Roman night.






Mood Music

23 Sep
24/03/09 El cantante y activista social Manu C...

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I find it incredible that Manu Chao is used as hotel lobby music in the Ibis Hotel, Montevideo (a stone’s throw from the American Embassy). Manu, who stands for everything that a global hotel chain opposes – the rights of the dispossessed, the homeless, illegal immigrants, the excluded. So I sit in the lobby, astonished at the incongruity between this rebel music and my shiny day-glo surroundings. And who’s next up? Manu’s hero and inspiration, Bob Marley, who has been given this kind of treatment for decades now.

Of course this is how capitalism works: it sucks in all opposition, chews it up and spews it out in its own image: in this instance as a once familiar but now curiously transformed musak – and although these recordings are exactly the same as the ones I listened to and loved when they were first released, they have somehow become re-configured, re-stated, recycled as hotel mood music and I am once again bereft, and my experience of being in the world has become cheapened and sullied and I will no longer be able to listen to these songs without the memory of this new, emasculated version superimposed on the songs I hold in memory.





What is a Classic?

24 Aug
A flat major (As-dur) fugue from the second pa...

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A couple of days ago I blogged about John Franklin’s moment of clarity while listening to a late Beethoven sonata in 1845, less than twenty years after it was composed. The music had – according to Sten Narodny’s account in The Discovery of Slowness – an epiphanic effect on the explorer, and in the novel he is made to endure a sublime moment of self-realisation.

Then yesterday, reading J.M. Coetzee’s essays, I come across an autobiographical anecdote of how Coetzee, at fifteen years of age, heard harpsichord music drifting across the garden fence from a neighbour’s open window in his Cape Town suburb, and the effect this had on his life. The music was from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and, writes Coetzee: “As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to as music had never spoken to me before.” This despite the fact that his family home was bereft of music, that he received no instruction in music, that classical music above all was “sissy” and regarded by Coetzee in a “somewhat suspicious and hostile teenage manner”.

But somehow Bach’s music breaks through to the boy, “speaks to” him, as Coetzee puts it. And in his essay ‘What is a Classic’ the adult author wonders whether his adolescent response to the music back in 1955 was “truly a response to some inherent quality in the music rather than a symbolic election on my part of European high culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end.” Since the essay’s title marks it out as a response to T.S. Eliot, and Coetzee is concerned about the emergence of the term Bach as a touchstone, and a classic as being, in at least one sense, ‘that which survives’, we end up depending (argues Coetzee) on criticism to define and sustain notions of the classical.

Which is all true, but by resorting to an argument about the nature of the classic (and for perfectly valid reasons) Coetzee rather avoids answering the question that he originally posed, about whether Bach ‘spoke to him across the ages’ or whether he, Coetzee, was (unwittingly perhaps) choosing high European culture and the codes of that culture in order to escape his class position in white South African society, and the historical dead-end represented by his immediate environment.

But despite the excellence of Coetzee’s writing and argumentation, I remain puzzled.

Somewhere in his writings, possibly The Curtain – I am away from my library right now and cannot check – Milan Kundera speculates on the kind of reception that would be given to a work of Beethoven’s were it written by a contemporary composer and performed as though it were a new composition. Kundera asserts that such a piece of music would be subject to ridicule. No one would take the music or its composer seriously. Since all cultural artefacts are a product of their historical and cultural moment, a ‘contemporary’ writing of the opus 111 piano sonata by a modern composer would fail to have the effect on a latter-day John Franklin, or by extension, on you or me.

How does this play out in relation to Coetzee’s adolescent experience? What if The Well-Tempered Clavier was the work of a brilliant but geeky composer of the 1950s who despised the tendencies of Romanticism and Modernism and elected to write ‘like’ J.S. Bach? The sequence of sounds would be identical, but would the effect be the same? Does this mean that young Coetzee’s response to Bach’s quintessentially classical music had its profound effect– even though he did not know what he was listening to?

How can this come about? Are our responses to music entirely subject to cultural and historic provenance? Is a particular arrangement of sounds only a cipher, a means by which a listener measures him or herself as a participant-observer in cultural experience?

This raises many other questions, including obvious ones such as the way we ditch and discard some music – even find it unlistenable – over the course of years, while other music we can listen to almost any time. But for the moment, Kundera’s question and Coetzee’s musical awakening in 1955 present a paradox that I am struggling to reconcile.

Any comments welcome.




A State of Wonder

22 Aug

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827

In Sten Nadolny’s fine novel The Discovery of Slowness, the polar explorer John Franklin attends a recital of Beethoven sonatas on 9th May 1845. During the performance of the opus 111 sonata, “John felt he was actually meeting the fine skeleton of all thought, the elements, and the ephemeral nature of all structures, the duration and slippage of all ideas. He was imbued with insight and optimism. A few moments after the final note sounded he suddenly knew, There is no victory and no defeat. These are arbitrary notions that float about in concepts of time invented by man.”

While it might not be a realistic objective for most of us to achieve this state of immaculate insight very often – supermarket shopping, tax statements, the MOT, and for some of us the basic dignity of finding work, all this stuff gets in the way – we are all gifted these moments of clarity, we all catch the occasional glimpse, and if we are lucky we build up a store of such experiences, an archive of rare encounters with the transcendent. Normally such moments are not instructive to others, nor in fact are they easy to elucidate or express. But cumulatively they create a cluster, form a chain reaction, each epiphany linked mysteriously to all those that have come before, in a steady act of making. I am reminded of the words of the pianist Glenn Gould that I quoted in The Vagabond’s Breakfast: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

Sometimes it swings this way, and sometimes the world has other plans.