words. music. pictures. scheherazade.
I got a haircut on Saturday. Before I popped into the barbershop, I saw that the local library was still open, so went in to kill some time. Got a DVD of Hurt Locker. Then just before checking out, saw a copy of Bach’s Six Partitas (ECM) played by Andras Schiff that I’d been curious about, but never got a chance to hear. These are some of the last pieces that Bach composed for the keyboard.
I say I never got a “chance to hear,” but it’s really because I was under a self-imposed dogma, I think; I rather chose to deny myself the opportunity to hear. I’ve been a lifelong fan of Glenn Gould, and even though I was never too particularly fond of his way with the Partitas, I’d accepted his idiosyncratic contrapuntal pointilism as God’s idiom when it came to Bach. It doesn’t help that I have been preoccupied with Edward Said’s On Late Style for the past two years or so (more later).
I couldn’t listen to the Schiff discs over the weekend, but I brought it to work with me on Monday. At my office, I use the old Playstation 1 as a the CD player, and Adam Audio A5 studio monitors, cute little fuckers that still put out really sweet music. I usually have music on as a background, and tonight was no exception. Spread out before me on the computer screen were numbers and figures which might as well have been hieroglyphics.
Then, something happened to me that hadn’t happened in a while, which is that a piece of music that was so familiar to me sounded nevertheless completely fresh, almost obtusely new. It shook me. I could not work for a good two hours. I’d never heard Bach’s Partitas breathe as it did in Schiff’s hands. I own a number of Schiff discs, Mozart, the excellent Janacek, some Schubert. But this music, Bach so filled with longing, the erotic/ascetic pattern of the natural long, human breath… I’d never heard music so familiar sound so newly minted and heartbreakingly exquisite, perhaps since I’d heard Radu Lupu’s late Brahms, the Chopin e-minor with Pollini. Sure, some hardliners might frown at the way that Schiff slightly lags the right hand’s appoggiatura behind the left hand. But it’s not nearly as bothersome - to me, at least - as how Evgeny Kissin lets the left hand land a fraction ahead of the right’s on the downbeat, no matter what the repertoire. And Schiff’s lag feels at least as natural and artlessly beautiful as Josef Hofmann’s “unwarranted” arpeggiated chords where the composers’ scores did not warrant any in the first place.
By the time the Track 23 was unfolding, which was the Allemande to the c-minor Partita (BWV 826), I was e-mailing and calling people; there wasn’t much to separate this late Bach from the late Brahms, despite the centuries which separated the epochs in which each composer lived. Which is to say that this was the music to caress your child to sleep with. To make love to your Other to. I could imagine it as the sonic memento with which I could hope to take my final breath.
I let the music seep in. And strangely enough, more than anything, the Allemande made me embarrassed about the compromised way with which I had been living my life these past few years, these too many years. Is this the kind of honesty that Art wrings out of our lives? I thought to myself: my Lord. Of course. Then I closed my eyes and decided to change my life.
(Image, a detail from a Giotto)