B.W.V. 1010

I had a decent musical education as a kid. I learned recorder in fourth grade, and then played trombone in middle school band, which peaked in a performance of Jurassic Park’s theme song in eighth grade. Years later in college I took a year or two of piano. On the vocal side, I was a part of countless choirs and musicals in both church and school throughout my entire childhood. As a result of all this I can read music at a basic level, but whether through lack of natural ability or lack of nuturing exposure, doing so is a laborious process that requires me to work through acronyms of the clefs and tediously translate them to piano fingerings. The latency on this is huge, measured in seconds. I have no intuitions; nothing compiled down. I’d like to blame my parents but I think the music’s not in them, either (though my dad has a lovely voice). It’s not part of our culture. Man hands on misery to man.

They say to be a good writer you should read, and by analogy my inexpertise in generating music can be blamed on not having listened to much of it. Over the past few years however I’ve begun to correct this a bit, through subtle influences I can’t quite trace. These must include the influence by example of the many graduate students here at JHU who spend a lot of free time playing and attending concerts; my time in Berlin, and the appeal of German choral arrangements; another student who urged me to visit the Berlin Philharmonic; and also the ease of access through services like Apple Music. I come across chance recommendations and jump on them. I like the payoff of the classics, which have survived curation. I find that pieces that had not interested me even recently will jump out at me. I like catalogs and systematization; in the near past this has taken me through Bach’s well-tempered clavier. And a year or so ago, I stumbled across Bach’s cello suites for unaccompanied cello.

Truly, is there anything like them?

The answer could very well be yes, but I can hardly imagine how. My favorite is B.W.V. 1010. Hearing its Prelude is like watching cascades of lightning , dropping, dropping, in an impossible sequence, each differing slightly, continuing on and on, starting over from a slightly different place, all making their way to the ground. Or it is like asking someone to count 10 for you, but each time they do it, they skip a number, or transpose two, or go from 2–12, or list an arithmetic series that at first feels like it will be right. Or maybe it is like enumerating permutations, keeping track in your head, ensuring that every variation is covered. It grates on you in a small way, such that you are just itching to hear them all said properly. You want it to complete, to restore equilibrium. With many tasks, I have some idea how someone might have accomplished them, even if they are beyond my own means or interest. A house is complicated, but I could design and build one. I bet I could build a windmill; I at least have an idea of how to approach it. I think I could have invented sewing. But I cannot begin to fathom how anyone could have assembled these pieces. There are times listening where the instrument seems to be outpacing itself or where I wish to see it played so I can be convinced it’s not actually a duet. That closing gigue! And the whole suite finishing on the same note it began with.

What a glorious instrument. Cellos must produce the most beautiful sounds there are. I can hardly believe in them. Another pleasure of really learning pieces is learning to hear how different musicians interpret them. I love the rapid pace of Jörg Baumann and the jolting, intentional, varied prosody of Maria Kliegel. I’ve been listening enough that I have been waking up with sequences playing in my head, and I have this kind of craving for them. Like a cigarette.

As I age I find these passions come in waves and subside. Probably none of this will last but I’m enjoying the season.