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Thalia Book Club Camp offers up-close interaction with renowned children's book authors and illustrators, book discussions, and book-related field trips around the city. This blog follows the camp's activities.

What I Might Say About The Goldberg Variations

Published on April 23, 2009

On January 14, 2008, pianist Jeremy Denk wrote this blog entry about his preparations for his performance of the Goldberg Variations at Wall to Wall Bach last May—which he will reprise on May 7.

The Goldberg Variations are (intake of breath, flip of hair, reluctant uprise of gesturing arm) … is there any way out of this? … the Goldberg Variations are … wait, hold on a moment, we needn’t bother to say, it transcends saying, it’s effing ineffable! and don’t you know that in place of speech we should roll our bloodshot eyes at the infinities we receive through our retinae and via vibrations rammed up our ear canals … does anyone have a Q-tip? … but here we go, out with it now, the Goldberg Variations are (don’t just say it you idiot, slight pompous lift to tone, now, give it some heft, some vavoom!): sublime, perfect, divine, magnificent. Whew. Don’t you feel better, now? Pat me on the back, I may have burped meanwhile.

And I go to bed assuming that in the morning I wake up–which I do–and then I come out to the piano room and there they are again. Ah, yes, my friends, sublime, magnificent, perfect friends, just the same as yesterday, just as perfect as yesterday, on the page. And I am not bothered by this, yet. I spend another whole day toiling with them, fingering them, expostulating over them, head bowed in meditation, mind swung left and right to basso and soprano, feet fighting themselves away from pedals, like concealed crutches, wondering when and if to lunch, a circle, a lonely torrent, a whirlpool, breathtaken, bored, dazzled, determined: all day, minus breaks. The timing and meaning of these breaks is an endless subject, I will bore you to tears with that someday. Anyway at the close of that day, you are of course not done at all, but you are done for the day, done for. There is no remedy but rest. You go to bed, you are sent to bed by Bach almost, he’s a stern father and advises early to bed wealthy and wise etc. etc., and you draw the covers over yourself and the notes retreat into forests at the rim of your mind, dancing like nymphs or like twinks at a rave, or whatever, whatever metaphor gets you off, and then somehow you’re gone. Sleep tight.

You wake up again. You come out to the piano room, again. Ah, yes, my friend, sublime, magnificent, perfect friend, you are there on the piano, again. Hrm. Perhaps not today but someday (let’s say it’s today) this perfection bothers you a little. Maybe not the perfection, but the ready availability of perfection. Or its persistence, its way of sitting there, blinking at you, paginated. You are standing there barefoot, several grey hairs are sticking quite eagerly, even youthfully, from the side of your head, they are paying attention to what you are thinking, even if you are not. Admit it you looked at yourself in the mirror, remarked hopefully you don’t look so bad, but no, no, let’s not flatter ourselves, not so early in the morning … Sleep clotting your eyes, not entirely steady of stance, you cannot help seeing the closet in the hallway with the one hinge broken and one pitiable envelope leaking out the bottom, cheeky messenger of mountains of paper within, oozing out of giant white garbage bags, like leaky organs of failed commerce, paper waiting to be shredded, so that my life can become gleeful confetti. And this is not the only telltale imperfection in your apartment, just the lurking one you notice at that moment, seducing with the promise of greater chaos, whereas the Goldberg Variations refuse to seem anything less than perfect yet again. You cast your eye warily from one to the other, from the blue Barenreiter enthroned upon your piano to the white, abandoned credit card offer on the floor of your hallway, with a footprint on it, it irks you somehow. “Irk” suddenly seems like such a better word than “perfect” or “sublime,” more concise, more expressive, more Nordic or Germanic, like a word uttered over a platter of crackling, fresh-roasted meat.

Off the track, somehow. (But maybe that was my point?) Back to Bach’s perfection, and my imperfections, oh what an essay that would make! You could almost concoct a religion out of that abyss. I want to confess something to all of you, whoever you are. Sometimes at night, I drink ginger ale and eat jelly beans and watch Lifetime Movies with Julia Stiles. No that’s not it. Here’s what I really truly need to confess: sometimes, at night (it only works at night) I turn off all the lights in the apartment except for the one by the piano, by the music. You can’t imagine how pretty it looks, the circle of light from the left falling upon the titles of the sublime Goldberg Variations. It says,

Variatio 18. Canone alla Sexta. a 1 Clav.

in a nifty font, which I associate with all things nifty, learned, and well-considered. And I am standing there, partly lit by the same light, glowing in the same lonely semicircle, actually, I come up to this lit page from behind, I sneak up to it, so I can only gradually see what is written, so I am a decipherer, I discover what’s on the lectern, I’m a monk coming to his study and the word of the Lord is there, and I read the title, and the title, if you will, has a sense of entitlement.

So at that moment, I succumb like a fool to the magic of the lighting. I relinquish myself to the fetish. An invisible camera springs up in the room, and I am the subject of a movie, a movie about a pianist, late at night, hard at work, against all odds, struggling against the handicaps of life, against rebuke, against hardship, against anything at all, against blue cheese if you want, or Syrian terrorists, whatever it is, I’m working hard, very very hard, immersed in the fountain of Bach, and what a wonderful vision it is, I say to myself “I’m a pianist practicing Bach, how Romantic!” and it seems beside the point to mention at that moment that I actually am a pianist, practicing Bach. But when I sit down to practice, after my little movie is over, it’s such a comedown, it irks me a great deal. But it’s the same thing! I say to myself, I’m the man in the movie! Why, for instance, did the movie end? No answer. Who would answer, anyway? After I shredded it, I felt certain the answer was in the envelope in the hallway.

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