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This Is Your Brain On The Goldberg Variations

If Variations 1-5 are your brain, Variations 25-29 are your brain on drugs. (iStockphoto.com)

(Jeremy Denk joins us all week to explore the Goldberg Variations. Read his Monday and Tuesday posts.)

Today on the subway I was sitting, idiotically studying the score of the Goldbergs (how does this piece go again?) and next to me there was a kid slumped spectacularly, taking up three seats somehow, not so much sitting as constantly shifting, with headphones sufficiently loud that the whole train had a rhythm track. He was writing hip-hop lyrics (or something?), coming up with rhymes, then getting dissatisfied, moaning, grunting, stopping and starting his iPod, virtually dancing on his seats, and there I was, prissy in my stiff denim and quasi-hipster sneakers, calmly studying my Bach score. I stared at my wan reflection in the train window, and my neighbor's: two musical people, side by side. It was uncomfortable. I just felt minute by minute I was becoming a nerdy caricature, an effete joke. My lips pursed. I have to confess something: I began to have a surreal compulsion, an irresistible urge to lean over to the kid and ask, "I say, do you have any Grey Poupon?"

Why was I studying my score? Because in this week of Goldblogging, I have this ridiculous urge to fit in everything I ever thought about the piece, to say it all, connect it all, organize it all, not to leave any insight — no matter how tangential or caffeinated — behind. I'm like someone who keeps searching for the one word that will make their ex-lover get back together with them. And it hits me: The behavior of the Goldbergs is quite similar to my own. Bach wants to put in every possible thing, every imaginable version of his harmonic scheme, versions in the style of a fugue, of a French Overture, minuet, aria, polonaise, the kitchen sink of style, and moreover to attempt all kinds of virtuosities, in all tempos and denominations, duples, triples, sextuples ... Most importantly, at the end of doing everything, he wants to tie it up neatly with a bow and say "there it all is."

This might be regarded as megalomaniacal, even Gingrich-esque. Bach wants to send us all to a colony on the moon, in G major.

Yes: With all the talk of transcendence, sometimes one forgets the Goldbergs are a bit maniacal, in the best way. For me, this mania begins to heat up in the second half. A good example would be:

Don't panic! Even if you can't read music, you can see there in the left hand, a gradually climbing set of notes, in a monotonous pattern. Oh, you might think, this is the accompaniment; it does sound a bit like an exercise, but luckily the right hand is playing a lovely melody. However ... some measures later, you realize: This pattern is still going on, the left hand is still climbing away, like a creature that won't stop. The magical, dangerous moment is when the climbing pitches of the left hand actually cross over the melody in the other hand. (This is when you begin to realize that the melody wasn't really the melody, it has been taken over by the infesting accompaniment.) Because of the way the brain is separated — damn those left and right lobes! — this moment is a special kind of mind-trap, a tangle, exponentially increasing your desire to screw up. On the modern piano there is an additional geographical problem: your hands crashing into each other.

The fourth bar seems to laugh a bit about this whole turn of events.

In the fifth bar, Bach turns this climbing idea upside down. The notes go step by step back the way they came, like an inchworm that has found the end of the stick and decides to inch back to the other end, just for kicks. For this journey, the right hand joins in:

My fingering in this passage may not be the most genius fingering ever, I'll confess; also, it tends to change in the heat of the moment, so that I just keep using the second and fourth fingers by default, and it makes my hand resemble a limping spider, a crawling crabbed spastic creature. Someday I'm going to fix this fingering once and for all, right after I organize my sock drawer. The key thing is to stop my fingers. At some point the pattern changes, or turns, and something else must be done; but your fingers don't necessarily know that. Truth be told, they'd prefer to keep doing the same thing, predictably, playing in thirds until the post-concert party, until the last martini is served at the last dive bar in the East Village and you wake up in the morning wondering how the Goldbergs went the night before, and if you said anything you'll regret.

Bach keeps setting off these patterns, seemingly endlessly, replicating. This is appropriate: The piece is about enormous replication, about the generation of infinite possibility from a single piece of code.

The sense of mania in this variation depends on the performance. I love (!) the early Gould recording of this variation because it resembles a Keith Jarrett or Art Tatum riff, a breathless moment when you don't think any more notes can really be fit in. (Simone Dinnerstein's is quite different!) Gould captures its manic evolution. The beginning is certainly complex enough; but as it proceeds Bach adds trills, graces, twists, stuffs in more and more, notes between the notes, and Gould emerges from the whole thing like a survivor, an acrobat, a juggler who only just manages to catch the last ball.

I would connect these types of variations together: the Sorcerer's Apprentice Variations, with their too many brooms. Just look at the score of Number 26, the first one after the "black pearl": It's an unbelievable morass of notes, a winding scale passage that doesn't stop. You could say it refuses to stop: That's the essential conceit, the audacity. We don't always think of Bach as a composer of climaxes, but here he builds a fearsome climax of complexity: first the scale in one hand, then the other, then — amazingly — both hands doing this incredibly complex scale passage in contrary motion, a moment which gives me googly eyes.

Another Sorcerer's Apprentice variation is #28. It begins with a (more or less) continuous trill with the thumb portion of your hand; meanwhile your fourth and fifth fingers pop out melody notes on the beats, kind of desperately snatched in between your continuous trilling. It is physically a bit uncomfortable. The left hand plays leaping eighth notes, deliberately and awkwardly unlinear. (The continuity of the trill is a foil to the disjunction of everything else.)

The texture is unusual, striking, pointillist. Its zany textural shifts have a purpose: to make you hear everywhere at once, to anticipate notes coming at you from every or any direction. And crucially, perversely, just when you think you understand everything that is happening, and are safely headed home, Bach leaves off leaping, and makes the eighth notes do the absolute opposite. He suddenly makes them chromatic, that is notes as adjacent and linear as possible, oozing up or down. The leap becomes the schmear.

I don't want to get too technical and music theory about this, so I'll just say that this sudden chromatic ooze is one of the most outlandish, thrilling, mind-blowing things ever written. Inside my brain some weird muscle suddenly spasms. Seriously, it's as if the Goldbergs took LSD.

Bach does these chromatic scales many times in a row, reveling; he really doesn't want you to miss it. And he is not done being naughty; he begins the next variation (#29) with rather solid chords, which suddenly atomize, dissolve into bewildering figurations. Of all the variations, this penultimate one is the most schizophrenic.

If variations 1-5 are your brain, variations 25-29 are your brain on drugs. It's as if the "black pearl" gives permission for the piece to go bananas. Those last five represent an unleashing of the piece's hidden urges — what I'd call an ecstatic desire to get weird. With their flurries of notes, they seem to almost crackle (especially on the harpsichord), like sparks given off by a lit log, like an ember disintegrating, coruscating ...

But as bizarre as they are, they also are the consequence, the outgrowth of forces we had already seen. Within Bach's organized world lives mania, audacity, and hilarity.

Even British, decorous Donald Francis Tovey gets worked up about the wild hilarity in the Goldbergs. He realizes this is something that cannot be swept under the rug, and goes on at length about the comedy in Variation 23, calling it "a more madcap frolic than Bach ever wrote in another instrumental work," and "a sparkling tissue of instrumental fooling." A monument should not typically laugh. Tovey marvels how Bach "can in the same work write an extravaganza like the twenty-third variation, and in the twenty-fifth touch some of the profoundest chords of sympathy and sorrow that art possesses." It raises a good question: this move from slapstick to tragedy is extraordinary, perhaps unprecedented, what we might call the insanity of the Goldbergs. How can we be King Lear one moment and the Three Stooges the next?

A series of beautiful paradoxes: It's a work of great unity that that seems to want to dissolve into profusion at the end. Like much of the greatest Beethoven, it wants to be transcendent but also occasionally ridiculous. The Goldbergs might be the Martha Stewart of variations indeed, if along with their clear, sane logic, they didn't also (in some sense) want to tear themselves apart, dissolve into madness. They are both me and the kid next to me on the train, both the stuffiness of classical music and its solution.

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