The idea was to write a book. It was to be on the Goldberg Variations, or on Bach; not a study of the piece, scholarly or musicological; in any case, that was beyond him. No, the idea was just an idea, it had come to him while playing the piano, let’s say the Goldberg for convenience, though in truth it could have been a piece by an entirely different composer. What matters is that the idea came to him, an idea inspired by a recent book he had read. He thought he could also write a book consisting of thirty short chapters, each one representing a variation; the mimesis would be complete with an “Aria” that introduced and ended the book; this theme, or Aria, would be a simple recapitulation of an historical moment in the life of the piece.
He began research on the book. A biography of Bach, a few recordings, and a short book on the Goldberg Variations. Soon enough, he found a suitable anecdote about the work’s inception: it had been written to stave off a bout of aristocratic insomnia. In this instance a Count’s, who’d kept his house musician busily employed, late at night. The result was what the Count reportedly called his “Goldberg,” and Bach was given the task to expand upon it when he visited the Count’s Dresden estate. The story, as he read it, was muddied by the usual intrusion of scholarly conjecture; even by itself, the apocryphal story was less than inspiring. Maybe it was the layers of transmission, of a scholar paraphrasing a nineteenth-century biographer’s convoluted prose. The effect was that he didn’t read much further and closed the book.
For a while the idea for the book circulated in his mind; naturally, he would talk about it, not wishing to speak about his dissertation. A friend of his seemed excited by it; he said it wasn’t a bad idea, or intimated that it had some promise. He (the friend) suggested going to a concert downtown: it happened that a jazz pianist would be performing the Goldberg Variations, adding stretches of improvisation between the sheeted notes. He took his friend’s advice and got there eventually, though late; the train to Wall Street was delayed, and he ran all the way to the church.
Inside, a group of people in scarves and warm clothing gathered around the piano. The pianist had already begun, and it would be for another ten or twenty minutes before he would find his way out of a tricky variation, a variation on which he pretended he was improvising but barely concealed a memory lapse; he kept circling around the same figure, caught in a fugal labyrinth, or rather a circle of hell from which there was no exit. Copious notes were supposed to be taken, but the would-be author could only try to suppress feelings of discomfort, as if he were the pianist himself; he too felt embarrassed, desperate, wishing for an exit. To his relief, the jazz pianist noodled his way out and onto the next variation; by then, all thought of the book had escaped. The writer decided to leave as quickly as he could: applause felt out of place, less appreciation than relief, a sense of danger escaped.
He walked down the narrow, dirty, ashen street which brought him back to the station: past the Italian-American pizza joint that served time-starved stockbrokers and bankers and past the seedy GENTLEMAN’S CLUB, the sign’s yellow glow having faded years ago. It was on this path that he walked when he came back from a weekly physiotherapy session, when a doughty woman would press her finger into the recesses of his mouth, around and behind the upper molars for painful periods of time. When the pain subsided, she would find new points of sensitivity that brought upon new waves of pain. The process was effective enough to keep the general undercurrent of discomfort at bay for a week, but it only, as they say, “managed” the pain, as if treatment were a recalcitrant worker who needed to be brought into line. The worker, in this case, played hooky every week or so.
He had also walked down this street for an Easter or Christmas service; his academic advisor at the time had mentioned that the High Anglicans were more Catholic than the Roman Catholics; their services were closer to a traditional medieval service, less affected by the reforms that modernity had forced upon the Vatican. These were services of Latin and bells, incense and ornately-robed processions, preparatory music lasting an hour or more before the service got under way. Lacking in these churches was the constant hustle of Italian men kneeling in the aisle, crossing themselves, and then hurrying outside for a “business” deal.
The church was called Trinity, an unassailable and orthodox name which was today emptied of meaning: the word became, or referred to, the place, the building; an ornate, semi-gothic structure with a central tower and an acoustic space for concerts. It’s not that he felt that the jazz pianist had exactly defiled the place, having taught to be indifferent to the grandeur of church buildings; but some breach had occurred, and the consequence was a performance that left a bitter taste. He didn’t write very much in his notebook.
In an apartment in Chelsea they all gathered. A Korean-American girl, a filmmaker, kept complaining about something. Then lengthy silences, because the topic had turned to war photography. Someone had died, maybe a friend, or someone quite well known in the field. Perhaps a Robert Capa type or a James Nachtwey, or a new breed of photojournalist eager to put their body on the line for the shot. The older man, seated to the writer’s left, had said this was not heroism; there was no glory, not to mention anything upstanding, to risk one’s life for a widely syndicated image. The Korean-American agreed, but this was far from the central locus of her thoughts. She kept saying something to the older man, himself a well-known artist whose photographs frequently appeared on the front of a New Directions imprint. In essence, she was justifying to herself the choice she had made, to become a filmmaker; she was angling for affirmation, a sort of parental approval, for she had exhausted her parent’s patience, having gone against them and their wishes and was now estranged from them, not exactly disowned but suffering under the constant gaze of their disapproval. And though the writer found her mildly annoying, seeing in her a fawning and a grasping for approval, he was to some extent, of lesser intensity, seeking something too. Not approval, exactly, but something like encouragement.
This is what the photographer jotted down in the writer’s notebook:
as well as his email and a website of a camera club. Below, the writer had also written down “The Losers, Thomas Bernhard,” but did not read it till many years later; indeed, as the writer looked through the notebook he discovered names of books he had recently read or wanted to read, as if his itinerary of reading had to be written down, forgotten, and embarked upon as if it were a recent impulse. Or, having written down the name of a book, it would work subconsciously, in the undergrowth of mental life, preparing him to want to read that very book years later.
He had read The Loser, for instance, after a woman he had sat near to at a reading in a Williamsburg bar had recommended it. Actually, what she said was that reading this novel had caused her to take an entire year off and write a novel. Bernhard’s novel was about Glenn Gould but focalised through a certain narrator, a pianist who knew that he would never reach the heights of Gould’s genius, despite his accomplishments as a so-called virtuoso (or was that Weitheimer?), and as a result had given up playing the Goldberg Variations or playing anything at all. The woman who had been under the spell of Bernhard, and particularly this novel, had written a novel quite Bernhardian, she admitted, but could not find anyone to publish it; she had become something of a character in a Bernhardian novel, a failed artist who had been enamoured with the genius of Bernhard himself, and could only acquit herself with a novelistic homage, a ventriloquising act that, to agents and publishers, was unoriginal. This would-be writer, therefore, had given up writing and returned to her job, which was bartending or waitering or something else, he doesn’t quite recall.
What struck the writer, when he had read the book, was how Gould was represented as some great genius, and not as a sometimes crank who was obsessed with Bach and had trouble playing in time with an orchestra. He didn’t deny the totalising effect of Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations, whether it was the one done in the 1950s or the early 1980s, the way it weighed on any pianist’s mind when attempting to learn the piece. But in his mind Gould was a bit of a poseur, styled as a sort of elite dandy know-it-all, who for instance said of Sviatoslav Richter that the Russian pianist was one of the world’s most powerful communicators, a conduit through which music, even the most boring and repetitious music like Schubert’s, would take on the quality of revelation. To which Richter replied: “Schubert has nothing to do with what Gould said.”
For the writer, who was once an aspiring pianist, Richter was the great pianist, the true genius worthy of idolatry. His knowledge of Richter was largely limited to a documentary made Bruce Monsaingeon (himself a violinist), an astounding documentary the writer watched over and over on a bootlegged copy his friend had made for him. Whenever he came home from high school early—in his final year, there was no afternoon sport on Wednesdays—he would heat up some passata, top it on spaghetti, lean against the cane lounge in the TV room, and turn on the VHS recorder. What was remarkable about Richter, on the screen, was how he somehow managed to elide all the immense pressures on him; in fact, it came across as a sort of sport, fooling Stalin’s men who followed him, or having Nina Dorliac—a singer—as cover for his gay escapades. He had learnt from his mother to be apolitical, to be unconcerned about the papers and changes in power: to go about the world as he wished, playing for a Russian troupe before auditioning—with no real credentials—at the Moscow conservatory.
Later, in graduate school housing, the writer would read about Richter’s alleged trystes in alleys or hidden places, all the while the pianist travelled around Russia giving concerts on substandard pianos to uneducated audiences. But his hero’s homosexuality seemed to be of less interest to the biographer than Richter’s statement that he didn’t interpret, he simply played what was written on the page. The biographer spent many pages, or so the writer remembered, arguing how it was impossible to play a piece without interpretation, that to play and perform a piece was always already an interpretation; as in literary criticism, hermeneutics was impossible to avoid. But perhaps Richter’s pronouncements had nothing to do with such academic debates; they were offered, as was his claim to be apolitical and his coupling with a female singer, as a way to sidestep the issue, to provide cover or protection or a rhetorical blankness by which he could continue as a pianist in the world.
Why was it, then, that Bernhard had chosen Gould rather than Richter as his figure of genius? Was it that, like Wittgenstein, Gould had a less extensive—or more idiosyncratic—repertoire than Richter, or indeed than most concert pianists, who usually emerge in the crucible of romanticism before embracing the deceptive simplicities of Mozart or the challenge of late Beethoven? That Gould circled round and round to Bach, charting a polyphonic course that would seem him estranged from public life and scrutiny, and most of all the concert hall? That the figure of genius could only manifest itself in severe isolation and solitude, just as Wittgenstein had gone off to a mountain cabin so he could think his strange, philosophical thoughts? But was it not the case that Richter himself was able to accomplish the very same thing in so-called public, seemingly enmeshed in communist politics and the demise of the Soviet Union, yet somehow, unlike his famous compatriots, free from it?
Near the end of Monsaingeon’s documentary, Richter plays the penultimate Chopin etude (op. 25, no. 11) in the wrong key; he says that, no joke, his “absolute pitch” has gone haywire; it has gone sharp, shifted up a tone or so in recent years, as if his musical brain had been suddenly calibrated to another age. The documentary cuts to a performance of the same piece Richter did in Japan, in the right key. After he strikes the final note, a doubled A, he quickly gathers his music and stands up and bows, bows as he walks, as the audience applauds rapturously and a little over-eagerly—a sign of a performer’s reputation preceding him.
At the end of the documentary Richter says, “I do not like myself.” He says it, having seemingly read it from an exercise book, probably a journal. He looks up to the camera with a head that seems ready to be placed in a museum. “That’s it,” he says. He has no more to say. Perhaps he wishes he could live a few years longer to wait for the next volume of Proust’s À la recherche de temps to be translated into Russian, but he knows he lacks the power for that. Richter died in 1998; the writer heard the news in high school, after a routine class in mathematics.
Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations for the second time in 1981, the year the writer was born; the tempo of the Aria was famously slow, almost half the pace of his earliest known recording. It was as if Gould was playing to the limits of the recording formats of the time: 38:34 for vinyl, and 51:18 for cassette. This is a half-truth; the 1981 recording was still conceived according to the culture of the gramophone.
The complete success of Gould’s recordings, executing a piece considered overly long and complex and therefore unviable as a commercial product, became the success of new generations of pianists, who emerged from obscurity with a recording of the Goldberg Variations. This was to be a chapter or two in the book, of how Simone Dinnerstein, Zhu Xiao-Mei, and a few others had made landmark recordings of the piece; unlike other piano superstars, or rather those who had a stream of constant engagements with big orchestras and big concert halls, they had become noted not for their virtuosity or on-stage theatrics but for a “fresh” interpretation of Bach’s piece; in other words, they (excepting Zhu) would have strived to play the Goldberg like Gould, failed, and revisited the piece perhaps years later in their own way. Gould’s stamp on the Goldberg was a curse for all pianists; only those who suffered through it, and in that way dispelled its considerable power, could emerge as interpreters of the Goldberg.
During the time the writer had conceived of the book, he met a pianist who was studying at Juilliard. He had been there for several years, steadily working through a masters and a doctorate, happy, like most musicians, to play under the protective banner of an august institution. He had arrived at Juilliard under precarious circumstances; his final performance as an undergraduate had put his arms in peril, his fingers seizing up as he forced his way through Grieg’s piano concerto. When he arrived in New York, he hadn’t been able to play the piano; the thought of addressing his hands at the keyboard sent spasms through his mind. For the first semester of school, he spent most of his time taking classes in musicology and composition; maybe he would become an editor of manuscripts or a music theorist, although that was not his natural inclination. Finally, he started taking piano lessons with a professor who was notorious for entirely reconstructing her students’ technique; many avoided her, having already gotten this far with their current way of playing that was, perhaps, they thought, no way inferior. Whether that was true or not, what was clear was that they wished to avoid this professor, who would undoubtedly set them back a year or two, precious time in the early career of musicians. In the case of our pianist, he was almost relieved to have his technique reconstructed; his habitual way of playing had brought him so far, into the territory of pain and constant dejection.
The professor suggested to the pianist that he take classes in the Alexander technique, so-named after an Australian actor whose debilitating hoarseness on stage had forced him to find a remedy, a diversion which would occupy the rest of his entire life. During lessons, the professor would not require any repertoire as such; they would begin as if he did not know how to play the piano, as if learning from scratch. This wasn’t some pretense at what Zen students call the beginner’s mind; in the professor’s mind, this promising pianist had to learn all over again how to play, was in actual fact, from a technical point of view, a rank beginner.
How to begin again? With a simple scale, or rather five notes of a scale. A C major scale—C D E F G—all ivories, those flat white keys. The professor prescribed that he begin with one note, and then two, and so on, always stopping if he felt even the semblance of pain. The doctors had said he had carpal tunnel syndrome, common enough in conservatory pianists who over-practiced. But the problem was the arm’s action on the keys; the professor showed him how to strike each note through the united rotation of wrist and forearm; he was to look at his elbow as if commanding its motion from that point.
The pianist began to practice in one of the conservatory rooms. Through the soundproofed walls leaked samples of Rachmaninoff and Chopin; he placed a stopwatch on the piano stand and finished when the stopwatch read one minute. Each day, he would add a minute to his practice routine, being careful that he struck each note as he had been shown, or to try until the motion was entirely free of strain. Then he would repeat it for good measure, to satisfy himself that the movement was not a fluke. In those nascent minutes, which under his regime stretched for days and weeks, every note felt like a fluke, something impossible to do then replicate. The very thought of striking middle C with his thumb would send a shock of fear through his arms; he had, somehow, to forget he was playing the piano, that he was doing something as simple as turning a door handle or placing a reassuring hand on his girlfriend’s shoulder.
After a few months, the pianist had started occupying the practice room for nearly an hour. He had moved on from the C major scale and had begun to master scales in octaves; he likened it to chopping potatoes. The professor had been pleased with his progress; unlike many other students, he had resisted the temptation to cling to his old habits, even though, like everyone, he reverted to back to them on occasion, seemingly undoing months of patient work. In a very real sense, he had not choice; returning to the old ways was a comfort tinged with tears; how often had he thought about that concert, believing it to be his last; how his arms had betrayed him, or how he had betrayed his arms; how he failed to emulate the virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz, whose recordings of Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and Chopin—above all, the warlike Polonaise—had set him on his path. Of course, he had conceded during those long days without the piano, that the days of the heroic, garlanded pianist, the pianist welcomed eagerly by reporters on the tarmac, as if he were an important emissary of the state, had long past; the pianist did not even enjoy the ignominy and censorship of a totalitarian state, of being the source of a corruption to a culture newly invented. These thoughts were not consoling in the least, but they somehow brought the pianist from the pit of despair. What a silly thing I have been doing for all my life! These outbursts made him break into a grin. He didn’t believe them, he was too serious for that, but the slightest levity was gained by these alien thoughts, at a time when everyone was trying to be positive but fearing the worst.
Eventually the professor prescribed a piece. The pianist was to learn a relatively simple Haydn sonata, with lots of scales and passages and minimal chords. Once the pianist could play that confidently and with ease, they could start gradually building towards pieces that could serve as repertoire for his degree performance. But the professor warned the pianist not to progress too fast: a difficult and virtuosic piece might see the return of his old technique, his debilitations.
During the summer break the pianist returned home to Texas; there he would practice in the comforting presence of his mother, his first and presiding musical guide, who briefly enquired after her son’s physical health, but chose this time to observe rather than instruct. On those long and bright days, she would listen to him play, first the right hand, and then the left hand, repeating the same figure over and over again, despite there being little difference to the ear. Eventually the two staves would converge on the keyboard; he would play a finished section one more time and abruptly stop, saying he had reached his limit for the day.
This continued for some time until it emerged that these fragments were all part of a single piece; of course, the mother recognised them, but they had been practiced so haphazardly that the entirety had been garbled in her mind, as if each bar or section stood alone, all unfinished ideas that gestured at nothing. It was a surprise, then, when she heard him play the first variation in full, at first a little slowly and then gathering pace with each repeat; she detected a nimbleness in his fingers, a crispness of touch that was new to her ears. The same tone carried itself into the other variations, including the tricky variation full of quick double sixths. By the end of the summer holidays, the entire of the Goldberg Variations seemed to be almost under his technical command; the only questions now was playing without the score, which had been scrawled on with numbers and all manner of lines, squiggles, and circles.
This was how the writer had ended up hearing the Goldberg Variations performed in the corner of a hotel lobby in Washington DC. The pianist had been asked to play it for an unusual gathering of philanthropists and graduate students for a conference; he played it from memory; there were hardly any flaws, or none that the audience could detect. The piece was almost ready for examination, maybe even for a competition.
In truth, the pianist said to the writer afterwards, it didn’t go as smoothly. I mean that when I returned back to New York, my teacher was aghast and ordered me to stop playing the Goldberg. I began to become despondent, stopped practicing, and in the end the professor relented, on the condition that I study with a Bach specialist who had trained with the professor’s teacher. I agreed, of course, and had to travel an hour for my lessons to a chapel uptown, on the Metro-North, which was often full of students and professors from Yale. The Bach specialist, you see, was a priest, and he had been assigned to a small parish outside of the city. He had trained for the ministry once he had completed his studies in classical piano. When he was undergoing exams to qualify for the priesthood, he would take a break to practice in the small chapel where there was an upright piano; he decided to play a bit of Bach, starting with book one of the Well-Tempered Clavier. This little relief from his studies became a welcome part of the day; more and more one would hear Bach, that heretic, ring out from the Catholic chapel. It was, perhaps, the very thing that got him through that period; after passing his exams, he requested an unusual leave of absence, during which me went to study Bach with his old piano teacher. His teacher showed him that to play Bach, a composer that this priest-to-be had found boring and obscure in his conservatory days, one had to master the pedal. He would need to learn to play the pedal as his fingers played the keys, with a dexterity and subtlety of an organist. For it was the pedal which allowed the piano to move beyond its percussive identity, to give the illusion of a sustained note, a scale perfectly shaped without gaps.
And this is what the priest taught me, said the pianist. He taught me to use the pedal, he continued, to rely on the two or three keys under my feet rather than my fingers, at least for those sustained notes that I had been long taught to depress for the full length of the note. He freed me, in other words, from the need to follow the score literally, holding down, say, a low G with my fifth finger while playing notes with other fingers; no, he taught me to blend and articulate sound like a painter, giving the illusion of depth and continuity and wholeness while my fingers had left the keyboard a while ago. In that way, I wouldn’t have to contort my hand, bring my wrist out of alignment and risking injury; I would have to rely on the pedal to sustain the phenomenon of sound, rely on what I heard rather than the immediate physical cause, which I had understood in a childish and mechanical way.
The writer heard the pianist perform a few more times, who had become something of a sensation at the school. Audiences wouldn’t be able to get a seat at his solo performances; they would have to sit on the stairwell—or worse, wait outside, hoping to hear the concert through closed doors. After being turned away at the door for a performance of the Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor, the writer went home and sat at his keyboard. As he played through a Rachmaninoff prelude at half speed, he wondered whether, in lieu of writing this book on the Goldberg, he might instead learn it, or at least revive his skills as a pianist in preparation. The pianist suggested he get in touch with a Russian man who resided in New York, someone he’d had a few lessons with and, unlike his professor, not bound to teaching students at Juilliard.
The Russian man had undergone a remarkable transformation. After a triumph at a major international competition, he had gone into hiding and emerged as an entirely different pianist, as different as late from early Gould. He started to take tempos of extreme slowness; rather than hide behind a flurry of notes, he drew out each phrase, layering the harmonies with a touch as subtle and differentiated as each pitch. Predictably, his performances had a defamiliarising effect on his audience members; those who had expected a torrid, virtuosic display became impatient, thus closing themselves off from the outset. That wasn’t everyone, thankfully, and to cater to this new and patient cognoscenti he started to experiment with higher fidelity studio recordings, at a time when the music industry was inuring everyone to degraded sound.
The writer wrote to this Russian pianist, who was flattered by the remarks in the email and said he was welcome to study with him. The only problem was the Russian would be in Japan for six months. Perhaps they could start when he got back? Otherwise, if one couldn’t wait, why not see if you can get lessons with my teacher, he wrote, who has studied the most extensively with the founder of the technique, of this new way of playing?
And that is how the writer ended up in a stately apartment on the Upper West Side—set up like a nineteenth-century drawing room—taking lessons with an elderly woman who behaved like she was in her forties, constantly busy, many students around her and eager for her attention. On his way there, the writer had another idea for the book—that he would write about the Goldberg as he learnt it, that this would be a work of participatory journalism, he would perform the work on radio at the same time as promoting the book—but afterwards he conceded that he would not be able to begin as quickly as he hoped. As was clear from his first lesson, it would take several months to learn how to play the piano again.