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Sadly, I know very little about classical music. This is because I am American and because I have rather uncultured parents and for a long run was rather shoddily educated, especially as far as non-fundamental topics like music and art went. The only lessons I ever got in playing an instrument were those mediocre group affairs called school band. I played the trumpet like all the other boys except for the one drummer and the single saxophonist, got just past “Jingle Bells” and then gave the thing up. Eventually, during college, I sold the slightly-dented instrument at my hometown music shop when I was hard up for book and Taco Bell money.

The girls played flute or clarinet, and thinking back, I bet their choice of an instrument indexed much of what was to come for them in life, though each in her own particular way.

I do have a feeling, however, that I may be the person who has listened to Glen Gould’s rendition of the Goldberg Variations more than anyone else in the world. I can’t remember why I first picked up a recording of it – must have had something to do with some book or other. But it basically has served as my work soundtrack for fifteen years or so – I am working well, generally speaking, when I am working with this on the stereo or playing out of the computer…

I took a helpful introductory course on music during my last semester of university (the same semester I took Greek I – fun, unuseful term that was….) But I still lack the vocabulary to say anything substantive about this piece of music or Gould’s performance of it. But I think that what it handles, what it productively preoccupies, is my brain’s (my mind’s?) anticipatory faculty. I have a jutting, clambering temporal tendency – I am no good at sitting still in the moment. This goes for work as it does for non-work (though, also, possessing or being possessed by this bad temporality has a tendency to make non-work feel an awful lot like work, too…) My mind’s always on what happens next with X, where this goes from here… I would love to label this a form of romantic idealism, or classical virtu, but really what it comes down to is a heady mixture of inheritances, perhaps one simply the abstractly psychological face of the brutely neuro-chemical underpinnings. I’d rather not spell them out here, but one has to do with an adaptation to capitalist social organization and the other with addiction – two faces of the same thing, really.

But listening to Gould, as I mark papers or type away at my book, has the feeling of box ticking, of boxes being elegantly and repetitively ticked. It feels like the invisible hand inside my head that normally points elsewhere, over there, with ever greater insistence, and then which gets frustrated, over there! over there!!!!, and then when it senses that I am simply not understanding the stakes of all this, makes a fist, knocks, bangs, breaks one knuckle and then another on the inside of the skull but just keeps knocking despite the throbbing pain… It feels like this hand is empenciled, ticking boxes on an infinitely scrolling roll, a standardized test sheet made of piano notes and thus busy for the moment and leaving me alone to work and think.

And so, just to broaden this out a bit, if I am against capitalism in any sort of visceral way (the other ways to be against it seem to me untrustworthy at best, inefficient at midbest, and complicitly hypocritical at worst) it is because capitalism fosters in a not-simply-metaphorical way the evolutionary development of body parts where they shouldn’t be. Hands in head, heads in cocks, hearts in eyes, and so on and definitely vice versa. It is an open and worthwhile question the relationship of the aesthetic in regard to (in treatment of) the sort of socio-genetic defect. The preoccupation of the parts that get in the way works to two ends – more than two ends – at once. The Goldberg Variations and similiarly constructed works serve as a form of local anaesthetic (like the shots of cortisone the ballplayers take to keep them on the field) that permits me to disobey the pain-signals coming from the knocking and scratching of the hand, such that I can be momentarily free…. but free to do exactly what other than slightly more calmly follow the prescriptions of this part that spurs me on?

If you have recommendation for other things I should listen to given the above (ha!), the comment boxes are yours for the ticking and typing.

Written by adswithoutproducts

May 24, 2009 at 11:22 am

Posted in me, music

3 Responses

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  1. This is remarkably close to my own experience with this piece of music, though you perhaps render it legible in slightly different terms than I would. FWIW, I’ve found that the other thing I can listen to while working is music with thick, complex rhythm sections, like Senegalese mbalax (Youssou N’dour’s Immigre) or Thomas Mapfumo. Mo polyrhythms, mo better.


    May 25, 2009 at 9:00 pm

  2. Funny, Gould playing Bach has an opposite effect on me; he had the remarkable ability to take what, in the wrong hands, are straightforward, almost mathematical pieces, and put me on the edge of my seat waiting to see what he does next. Needless to say my concentration on anything else goes to hell quickly.

    Regardless, if you like the Goldbergs you might also like the Well-Tempered Clavier — for me, Bach & Gould at their most brilliant and interesting.

    [RE: choice of instrument foreshadowing the future; I played the (french) horn: aiming for the hardest possible thing, and, in the end, failing. Right on the money, so far.]

    David R

    May 25, 2009 at 9:19 pm

  3. zunguzungu,

    Will try those tomorrow!

    David R,

    Well, it probably has to do with the fact that this is the only renditions of the GVs that I know… So it’s become naturalized. I’ve heard other, more normal ones (no weird gasps or grunts) and they sound really strange.

    Will try WTC as well. And, you know, I don’t think the french horn was on offer at my school, or else, yeah, it’s likely I would have picked it given what you say.


    May 25, 2009 at 10:08 pm

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