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Variations on the Goldberg Variations
September 24, 2013 9:43 PM   Subscribe

Why I Hate the Goldberg Variations, by Jeremy Denk, whose new (lovely) recording of the Goldberg Variations is now streaming on NPR. Also by Denk: Hannibal Lecter's Guide to the Goldberg Variations, which explores the famous cannibal killer through the lens of Bach. This is Your Brain on the Goldberg Variations, which gets in-depth on just how the Variations vary.
posted by Rory Marinich (30 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
I know everyone discusses the Goldbergs as if born from the mind of God in some beautiful Olympian harmony-paradise. But here's another way to frame it: Bach set out to write something less boring than one of the most boring pieces ever written. And he succeeded. If the Handel Variations are Last Year at Marienbad, the Goldbergs are Die Hard.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:50 PM on September 24, 2013 [1 favorite]


One of my yoga teachers uses the Hannibal versions as the relaxation music and I sometimes have to leave early and laugh like a meth-addled hyena just outside the door.
posted by elizardbits at 9:53 PM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


Serendipitous timing--he just won the MacArthur!
posted by johnasdf at 9:57 PM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


That's how I discovered him!

Curses! My attempts at feigning culture have been spoiled again! Damn you, johnasdf! Daaaaaaamn yooooooou!
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:01 PM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]



The Goldbergs are not even variations in the modern sense, but an imperceptibly vast chaconne, an evolutionary passacaglia built on the repetition and recycling of this Base. Music that goes nowhere, that simply is, hovering around the fixed center of diatonic time.

A line of pitches can be heard as a melodic sequence or as a series of harmonies. Bach's Base is both, at times even hybridizing horizontal and vertical. As with 90 percent of standard tonality, it is no more than an exploration of the possibilities hidden in the scale. The sequence is symmetrical to an extreme: two paired, complementary halves of sixteen notes each. Each half comprises four similar-shaped paired phrases—tension, release, tension, release—four notes long. Each pair of four-note phrases creates an eight-note harmonic section, four in all, tracing the fundamental journey from tonic to dominant to relative and back to tonic. Sixteen twos, eight fours, four eights, and two sixteens: with repeats, the trip from home and back takes sixty-four notes.

Dr. Ressler—already fighting gnostic tendencies—must have loved discovering in Bach two paired strands, four phrase-building blocks, a sixty-four-codon catalog. Bach had a habit of imbedding mystic numbers in his compositions; these ones happen to correspond to the number-game nature imbeds in its own. But this coincidence was the least of the qualities that made this music Ressler's best metaphor for the living gene.
- Gold Bug Variations, Richard Powers
posted by bodywithoutorgans at 10:10 PM on September 24, 2013 [4 favorites]


FTW:

I know everyone discusses the Goldbergs as if born from the mind of God in some beautiful Olympian harmony-paradise. But here's another way to frame it: Bach set out to write something less boring than one of the most boring pieces ever written. And he succeeded. If the Handel Variations are Last Year at Marienbad, the Goldbergs are Die Hard.

posted by chavenet at 1:37 AM on September 25, 2013


Yes, I'm suspicious of the Goldbergs' popularity. Classical Music is not really supposed to be that popular. I worried for years that I would be seduced into playing them, and would become like all the others—besotted, cultish—and that is exactly what happened. I have been assimilated into the Goldberg Borg.
nooooo you were so close
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 4:25 AM on September 25, 2013 [3 favorites]


Denk is a treasure, both as a pianist and a writer. I suggest everyone digs through everything he's ever blogged, especially if you think classical music is less than relevant to our modern experience.
posted by lownote at 4:54 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I went through Junior High and High School with Jeremy. He and I were The Two Piano Players at both schools. We were in Orchestra together for 7 years (me on string bass, him on viola), both took 3 semesters of Touch Typing together in Junior High, and were in all the AP track classes together. We used to play spades every day at lunch, keeping score on the brown paper bags we brought our food in, with cumulative games running on for weeks.

Ultimately, he took music much more seriously than I did, although I think I was having more fun with it all at the time. He seems to be having more fun with it now.

It's been fun to watch his career expand and unfold over the past while. He was getting mentions in the small type at the front of The New Yorker a few years ago, almost in passing. Then he got some longer write-ups, then he wrote an article or two for them. Then he was on an episode of Michael Feinstein's show with Joshua Bell not too long ago, plus some album reviews. And now the MacArthur and even more renown.

I say, good for him. He was talented then as now, and his ability to express his passion is excellent.
posted by hippybear at 5:48 AM on September 25, 2013 [10 favorites]


I periodically approach my copy of Gould's rendition with the cheery attitude that I will, this very day, figure out why the Goldbergs are so beloved, and I always feel like a failure afterward in that I know it's all good in some deeply mathematical way, but it doesn't call to me.

The Brandenburgs, the English Suites—these are pieces I'll pine for in the perfect moments, humming them with tragic inaccuracy (it's desperately hard to hum "English Suite no. 2," to give an example) when I need to hear them right then and there. My beloved "Toccata & Fugue in D minor," a piece overloaded with horror movie tropes in the popular culture, alas, is one that lets me feel the sparkling touch of divine light dancing in my neural net.

The Goldbergs, though?

I just feel like I'm on the outside with those in that way that classical music's arch fanatics maintain the wall of us-vs-them by setting these "oh, but you simply must love [X]," with the clear implication that admission to the club requires an comprehensive acceptance of canon. I've been listening with joy to classical music for my whole life, but I can never quite enter that kingdom because the Goldbergs are a mystery to me. Well—that and because I absolutely hate Mozart with a searing hot aversion that rears up like a burning Vegas showgirl headdress almost from the second I hear the orchestra firing up their sewing machines for yet another tiresome rendition of his soulless salutes to his own overbearing brilliance—

But I digress.

The glorious result of musicians trying to one up each other is the emergence of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in response to Pet Sounds, not the Goldbergs.

IMHO, of course, and it is awfully H, to be sure.
posted by sonascope at 6:01 AM on September 25, 2013 [8 favorites]


sonascope: "
The glorious result of musicians trying to one up each other is the emergence of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in response to Pet Sounds, not the Goldbergs.
"

Thank fuck we have both. In both cases.
posted by chavenet at 6:19 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Perhaps the most famous cinematic Goldberg moment is in Silence of the Lambs: Hannibal Lecter, chewing the face off one of his prison guards to the strains of the Aria. This use of is — depending on your point of view — either a stroke of genius or an act of cultural cannibalism. Admittedly, it's vivid, certainly one of the best face-chewing scenes I can think of.

This guy's great. Thank you so much for bringing him to my world.
posted by mediareport at 6:22 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mostly I don't try to teach the piano like a serial killer, but often I have found myself imitating Lecter, and asking students: What is this passage of music doing, what does it seek? And they reply "mysterious," or possibly "this is the second theme" — either an epithet or a piece of learned jargon. No verbs anywhere. It makes me want to eat their livers with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.
posted by mediareport at 6:24 AM on September 25, 2013


I don't want to hear the Goldbergs played by someone who hates them (even if it is this forced, put on type of hate).

I find the Goldbergs to be great (and only rarely does anyone drag them out to 80 minutes). I also love Die Kunst der Fuge and Das Wohltemperierte Klavier and similar massive sets of (mostly) formal exercises. This is a lot of what Bach did, he was the decadent end of the Baroque and one reason that many other composers moved on to other styles.


I coincidentally listend to Denk play Henry Cowell's Piano Concerto yesterday and I just started his performance of Tobias Picker's 2nd just now so there aren't any hard feelings. And another good thing about this article is that I looked into transcriptions so I have a version for string orchestra queued up!
posted by mountmccabe at 6:25 AM on September 25, 2013


Within the Why I Hate The Goldberg Variations piece it is apparent that Denk, in fact, has great affection for them. So, y'know, you can listen with a clear conscience and whatnot.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:39 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Haha. And yes, I agree. I was just coming back here after reading the other pieces (Lecter, Drugs) and marveled at the some of the details expressed and reconsidered the first piece and am leaning towards thinking that the put upon hate of the first piece (Hate) was a formal exercise in a similar vein. I am on board!

And, really, who am I kidding, I listen to all the things.
posted by mountmccabe at 6:47 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


John Q. Walker did an electro-mechanical re-enactment of Glenn Gould's performance by rebuilding how he played. It is delicious in that Glenn Gould, very likely on the autism spectrum, really didn't want to perform for people, so allowing an audience to hear Gould live-ish without Glenn present probably would have tickled him.

My brother told me that they're boring because they were written as an aid to insomnia (although there is contention about this). Still, I like the real finger soup ones like 5, 20 and 26.

I also think he's harping a little much on G major. Here's my brother talking about Bach over a recording of him playing a transcription of the Organ Fugue BWV 577 in G. It's really interesting seeing and hearing how his playing has matured over the years. I smiled when he clammed the last chord, only because I've heard oh so many more clams in his playing.
posted by plinth at 7:09 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


everybody loves them.

Except those of us who, when we listen to Bach at his most didactic, are often reminded of a faithful, foot-powered treadle sewing machine. And we who, when we listen to Gould at his most didactic, are often reminded of a motorized treadle sewing machine.
posted by Twang at 7:37 AM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


Variations on the Goldberg Variations Variations
posted by hubs at 7:47 AM on September 25, 2013


suspicious of the Goldbergs' popularity.

The man wrote it in G major, the People's Key. So quityerbitching.
posted by thelonius at 8:21 AM on September 25, 2013


That first link is an excellent counterexample to the pervasive internet writing style of "I don't like this thing, therefore it is bad." (maybe it's a pervasive writing style, maybe I'm reading in the wrong places)

Thank you for drawing Denk to my attention. He's a heckuva writer. I'll stream those Variations, and poke around some of his other writings today.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 9:23 AM on September 25, 2013


sonascope: "that and because I absolutely hate Mozart with a searing hot aversion that rears up like a burning Vegas showgirl headdress almost from the second I hear the orchestra firing up their sewing machines for yet another tiresome rendition of his soulless salutes to his own overbearing brilliance—"

Aw. I hear this a lot from people who in other circumstances would be rightly imploring others to relax their insistence on a particular sonic window dressing so that they might get to appreciate the dazzling structural play of a Stravinsky or a Schoenberg, and I'm not sure why Mozart doesn't deserve the same consideration just because his music is often outwardly sweet-sounding.
posted by invitapriore at 2:22 PM on September 25, 2013


"Real" music is a strange foreign language to me. Seeing people argue over variations of things frightens and confuses me.

(The only real reason I know what the Goldberg Variations even are is a Kickstarter campaign to put some performances in the public domain. I bought the sheet music for a gift.. and nearly 2 years later I got to give that gift!)
posted by DigDoug at 7:58 PM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why Mozart doesn't deserve the same consideration just because his music is often outwardly sweet-sounding.

For me, at least, it's because there are enough people who already consider Mozart. He's not hurting for attention, so I don't really feel the need to bend my attention towards him.
posted by Casuistry at 9:41 PM on September 25, 2013 [1 favorite]


And that article is why I hate Jeremy Denk. He's OK.. but more a result of hype than anything else. A poster above mentioned it.. he had been getting a great amount of press in the New Yorker, from.. big surprise, Alex Ross.
posted by ReeMonster at 11:11 PM on September 25, 2013


As someone who has known Jeremy since he was 13 years old, and who hasn't really been a fanboy of his ever, I don't think it's about hype. He has a gift for expressing his passion about what he does, and what he does, he does really well. You may not like how he does what he does, and you may not like how he expresses himself, but as someone who "knew him when" and who has only followed his career from a distance, I have a lot of respect for him and the things he does.

Perhaps you think the MacArthur jury members are all under the thumb of Alex Ross, but I sincerely doubt it.
posted by hippybear at 11:31 PM on September 25, 2013


The only reason the GBV are so well known in the general population is because of Glen Gould, imo. And of course the marketing strategy a 19th century publisher came up with, which included renaming the piece The Goldberg Variations and inventing a great story about how it came to be, was brilliant. The piece was a publishing failure in 1742 because it was so difficult to play, impossible.

I think that the piece was written as an act of vengeance. Bach was very unpopular as classical music was the new upcoming rage and Bach was seen to be writing old fashioned Baroque music. He eschewed the variation form as it was very popular and hackneyed. In 1837 young upstart Johann Adolf Scheibe anonymously started writing nasty things about him in the press, Bach left the response to friends in higher places, but I believe that Bach wrote the Aria with 30 Variations to point out what a fool that idiot was. It took the variation form to a crazy new level and essentially was a dare for anyone to try and play it. Unfortunately it remains a vengeance piece to this day as it is notoriously difficult to play and even harder to perform.
posted by snaparapans at 6:58 AM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


The only reason the GBV are so well known in the general population is because of Glen Gould, imo.

For a moment I was like "Damn, Guided By Voices is all wrapped up in this too?! Cool!" [hangs head, walks away]
posted by jalexei at 12:12 PM on September 26, 2013 [2 favorites]


Though as far as Bach's immortalizing of giant middle fingers in the form of music goes, it really doesn't get any better than the Musical Offering, especially since the dedicatee and the fuckee are the same person in that case. I mean, it's just amazing how it manages to be both this soaring, intricate paean to transcendent beauty and then also an extended rant along the lines of "fuck your taste in secular music, fuck your taste in the galant style, fuck your attempt to embarrass me, fuck your puny musicianship, oh and by the way your worldly court will crumble and both God and I will laugh. Did I mention fuck you? Anyway, God bless."
posted by invitapriore at 1:44 PM on September 26, 2013 [4 favorites]


For years, I listened to the Goldbergs every work day at my desk, first thing in the morning, with my coffee and like clockwork, as a sort of meditation. Mostly Gould '55 or '81, but often enough another interpretation. I don't have that level of dedication to the piece any more, but it is still a core element of my music-listening life. I obviously adore the Goldbergs. I think that listening through the sequence, they tell a very humane and encyclopedic story of intellect and emotion, at turns joyous, elegiac, obsessively intellectual, wistful, pedantic, and whatever else you might hear. Nobody will ever change my mind about this piece, but I always look forward to a new interpretation. The fact that the piece survives and invites so many interpreters is evidence in itself of the piece's lasting value. I actually talked a Toyota salesman in '92 into listening to it during a test drive, and he liked what he heard and agreed with my analysis.

I do think it helps to listen to a version like Gould's '55 that skips all or most of the repeats to avoid any chance of boredom, but that might be an obvious statement. To round out the place of this composition in my life, I actually have considered specifying that the Goldbergs be played at my funeral (with Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five's 1928 recording of West End Blues playing as they seal up the casket).

So, in summary, the Goldberg Variations is a piece of contrasts. I can't wait to hear Denk's interpretation.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 7:45 PM on September 27, 2013 [1 favorite]


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