|Directions: Set up your own page of favorite music complete with YouTube or other links to your favorites.
In addition to listing six of your favorite sons or pieces of music, we're asking you to listen to each piece and tell us why you like the music. Using your own words, describe the music. Why is each piece important to you?
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I like to travel light, and I've often thought I'd be happiest if I only had four things to look after: a set of comfortable clothes, a laptop, my Kindle, and my iPod.
Yes, an iPod. I'm so old-school that I don't have an iPhone -- nor do I want one -- so I still rely on a music player that Apple itself has given up on.
Anyway, that might tell you how important music is to me. I constantly have a soundtrack going, and I live deeply inside it.
So I have hundreds of favorites, and I love each one for itself -- not because it stands for something or reminds me of something else -- but for what it is. Asking me to pick a favorite piece of music is like asking me to pick a favorite word. Each one is lovely in its own way, and there is no single piece to which I can declare an absolute devotion.
Okay, except for two pieces. The ones at the top of my list dwell so close to the center of my musical experience -- they are so expressive of what music means to me -- that I instantly thought of them when I read this challenge. But I'll get to them later.
As for the other four ...
Well, I'll confess that I didn't pick them out after much thought. Instead, I picked them out because they jabbed me in the eye as I was scrolling through my music library. None of them are intrinsically better than anything else I like to listen to, and I don't listen to them more often than I listen to anything else. But each of them possesses some quality that I look for in music. They stand as exemplars, then, of what I love in music.
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Take, for instance, this one:
Music is a very sensual art, and most people -- when they're not looking for something to dance to, make out to, or snort cocaine to -- go for the "pretty" music. Debussy wrote some of the most sensual music around. It's like perfumed feathers directly rubbing the brain. There is no obviously "story" in his pieces, no dramatic structure like you find in a Romantic tone poem. Nor is there any obvious formal structure, as in a symphony or overture. It's just a lot of fragmentary melodies rippling over and other each other; harmonies melting into and out of each other. The body comes in the orchestral choices -- in the case of "Prelude," the shimmering strings and the ardent winds.
Debussy pushes music into the realm of ethereal, bodiless beauty. A Bach fugue is stunning upon the page and can be appreciated without being experienced. But Debussy is almost the opposite -- a particular, trembling, momentary experience that forces the mind to attend to the vivid present. At its best, his music has the same beauty as the glistening rainbow reflected on the surface of a soap bubble: a thing that hovers on the line between existence and non-existence, and which must be grasped -- though not too firmly! -- in a moment of intensity before it vanishes.
So I choose Debussy's music as emblematic of one of music's many virtues -- formless, undiluted beauty -- and his "Prelude" as one of his keenest creations.
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My next choice is also an emblematic one, but it sits at quite a different spot on the spectrum.
Henry Mancini is best known, of course, for composing the "Pink Panther" theme. I have the impression he's not taken very seriously by people who know jazz. All I know is that he has given me an immense amount of pleasure over the years, from such smoky things as "Banzai Pipeline" to silly stuff like "Pie-in-the-Face Polka."
We shouldn't overlook the fact that music should be pleasurable. There are, of course, lots of ways for music to be pleasurable, but there are two ways of losing sight of that fact. Either we mislay the music itself while enjoying the experience it is accompanying -- as when we forget the music while dancing to it -- or we overload an enjoyable piece of music with significance until the pleasure itself is forgotten.
But Mancini, even in the midst of the great beats, the sinuous melodies and the jazzy harmonies, won't let me forget that he's giving me a great time. I can't not smile when I listen to something he wrote.
His music also has a wonderful transparency. He builds in layers. "Fallout" starts with a regular beat and a great walking bass. Then, one by one, additional layers come in, moving in counterpoint to each other, so that you never lose track of one even while you're listening to the others.
He is also just amazingly cool in that swank, mid-century way, while also floating free of it. "Peter Gunn," for instance, makes perfect sense as the title music to a 50s American noir, but it would serve equally well as the theme to an alt-universe James Bond or to an alt-universe "Cowboy Bebop." It's a rare piece of music that can rest so naturally and inconspicuously atop such disparate cinematic genres and styles.
I choose "Fallout" for its pleasure, for its popular appeal, and for one way that it lies athwart the usual Mancini tendencies -- it has a harshness and tension that he didn't often put into his music. But like the bitters in an otherwise smooth cocktail, it's something that gives the usual Mancini sound a wonderful chewiness -- a pleasure of another kind.
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The classical and the popular join hands in my fourth selection, which shows just how far genius can go in bridging the centuries.
Close your eyes, and you can practically smell the marijuana and the clove cigarettes, can't you?
The sound is pure bohemian: driving rhythm, scintillating scat-singing, and casual, almost insolent brilliance. The foreboding opening harmonies yield to a louche, shrugging, and deeply eccentric adagio, then a shattering, aggressive fugue. It has the nervy, caffeinated energy of a music so brilliant it can barely hold itself together; it's a music that rages against mediocrity and sentimentality. The Swingle Singers, I'm sure, were very nice people, but this Sinfonia, if given physical form, would jam Peter, Paul and Mary down a gas-station toilet, and brawl with the Beatles.
And it was written in the early 1700s, by Johann Sebastian Bach. It's the first movement of his C minor partita for keyboard.
He never intended it to be heard this way, and who knows if he would approve of it. But the Swingles only added the snare drum, and their version can be still be heard inside it even when played on the clavichord.
There aren't many composers whose work can survive such a wrenching change in orchestration and context. But the Swingles' interpretation isn't really untrue to Bach. They merely make plain the tensions and energies that Bach put inside it.
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I'm not a great fan of opera, and I don't have a lot of experience with it. Obviously, it's the kind of thing that's better experienced in a theater, not through ear buds, particularly if you can't understand the words.
But my third choice (we're counting up from the bottom, remember) is an example of musical dramaturgy so expertly done that you don't have to know Italian to follow what's being said. You only have to know the plot, because the music practically gives you the meaning. And what glorious music it is, too!
[From 0:00 through the 4:15 mark]
Only thing needs to be said about it: the plot. Once you know that, the glorious music all by itself tells you exactly what's going on and what each person is saying.
Here's what happened before the music starts: Two servants, Susanna and Cherubino, were talking about the hard crush that Cherubino has on the wife of their employer. They heard the Count -- the Countess's jealous husband -- approaching. A panicked Cherubino first hid behind a chair, then crawled under the long dress that was draped over it. Meanwhile, the Count, thinking he was alone with Susanna, tried to seduce her. Then another voice is heard -- the gossipy Basilio -- and the Count hid behind the chair where Cherubino had been. In that position he overheard Basilio regaling Susanna with all the dirt on Cherubino and his infatuation for the Count's wife. The enraged Count then leapt out.
The trio "Cosa sento" begins with the Count raving against Cherubino, Basilio disclaiming his own gossip, and Susanna wondering how the hell she's going to get out of this mess. She faints and the two men catch her. They're about to set her in the chair that Cherubino is hiding in, but she revives in time to yell at them. The argument resumes, with Basilio and Susanna insisting that Cherubino must be innocent. But the Count says the rumors just confirms what he already knew. Why, just the other day, he says, he caught Cherubino hiding under a table in a servant girl's room. The Count dramatically reenacts that discovery -- he swept the tablecloth away to reveal the hapless page -- by sweeping that dress off the chair, thus revealing Cherubino. Much consternation (the Count and Susanna) and glee (Basilio, who's having a wonderful day) ensue.
You don't need to see the scene performed, or have a translation in front of you. You only have to understand the situation, and the music will tell you what they're saying and doing. This is extraordinary, and it's not the only scene in Figaro where Mozart pulls it off -- virtually the entire opera can be understood, without being seen or translated, with only a detailed summary of the plot.
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Now we come to my last two -- my top two -- picks. I can't choose between them, because they are alternate performances of the same work by the same artist, and they complement each other to create -- in my imagination, at least -- an organic whole.
These are the "Goldberg Variations," by J. S. Bach, as performed by Glenn Gould. The first recording is from 1955. The second is from 1981.
Unfortunately, this is not a work that can be understood simply by describing its aesthetic effects. It is, first of all, a set of thirty-one pieces, each with its own mood. Moreover, although the variations collectively create their own grandiose effect, it's an effect cannot be easily grasped simply by listening to them. They are as much a matter of the intellect as of the viscera.
So to explain what this piece means to me, I'm going to have to give an amateur's analysis of them.
When most people think of musical variations, they think of a set of melodic variations, like Mozart's variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman" (a.k.a., "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star"). In that kind of variation changes are rung on a single, highly recognizable melody.
But the Goldbergs are built on a bass line: a set of 32 notes, with strikingly different pieces composed atop them. Think of the bass line as a foundation, and each variation as a strikingly original building erected atop repetitions of that foundation: a ranch house, a McMansion, a skyscraper, a church, a castle, etc. The variety is so extraordinary that, unless you knew that each one had the same foundation you would hardly suspect that they had anything in common with each other.
But the variations are not a mere collection, either. They are organized according to a pattern. Beginning with Variation 4, every third variation through Variation 28 is an ornate genre piece -- a dance, an aria, an overture, etc. With Variation 5, every third variation through Variation 29 is a toccata or arabesque -- a technically challenging display of manual dexterity and virtuosity.
The deepest pattern, though, recurs through the remaining variations: those beginning on Variation 3, and continuing on every third variation through Variation 27. These are canons: a single melodic line played out of phase with itself by two different voices over the bass. (In Variation 27 there are only two voices, and the Goldberg bass is one of the voices in the canon.) If you don't know what a canon is, think of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," which is canonical in form. There is a single melody, but different voices, each singing the same melody, join at different times, yet are never out of harmony with each other. The canons themselves progress according to a pattern. Variation 3 is a canon on the unison -- the two voices begin (at different times) on the same notes and play the same notes. Variation 6 is a canon at the second -- the two voices begin (at different times) on notes a whole step apart. Variation 9 is a canon at the third -- the melodies play two steps apart -- and this rising pattern continues until Variation 27, where the voices are a ninth apart.
[If the above isn't clear, here is a short video I made , looking at a fragment of one of the variations. It shows how eight notes can be turned into a canon.]
The result is something like an aural cathedral. The canons are like pillars or buttresses, and the dances and arabesques are like stained glass windows appearing at regular intervals between the supporting canons. The Variations also break into symmetrical halves, with Variation 16 being the kind of French overture that typically opens a musical suite -- here it opens the second half. The effect is of two complete sets (Variations 1 through 15, and Variations 16 through 30), like two wings of a single architecture. Flanking the thirty variations are two appearances by the Aria, which the Variations are, well, variations on. The opening appearance is like a statement on things to come; the final appearance is a valedictory statement that the promise has been kept.
No one knows why Bach wrote this piece. There is a story that it was commissioned by a diplomat who suffered insomnia and wanted some pretty music for his harpsichordist to play for him when he couldn't sleep. All we really know is that it is one of the few things Bach had published in his lifetime, possibly as a pedagogical demonstration. "Here," he seems to have been saying. "I have taken a thirty-two note bass line and created thirty extraordinarily diverse dances, canons, and toccatas over it. As I have done, so you can do as well. Learn from my example; go forth and be creative."
Whether this is the message that Bach intended to deliver, it is a message that comes through if you approach the work in the spirit of a composer -- whether an amateur or a professional. If you know anything about the rules of counterpoint, and if you have ever done an exercise in species counterpoint -- where you construct a second, third, and/or fourth melodic line atop a given bass -- then you recognize exactly what Bach has done, and you sense a cheerful challenge behind the Goldbergs: He isn't doing anything that you haven't done, and he hasn't used any tricks or techniques beyond the skill of a seasoned amateur, and yet look at what he's made with them.
So what's your excuse for not doing just as well? Aside, of course, from the whole "J. S. Bach was some kind of spooky, space-alien genius" thing.
So that's the first reason that the Goldbergs special to me: It's the work of a genius trying to show us, as clearly as possible, that anyone can acquit himself without embarrassment so long as he is practiced at craft and technique. It's a demonstration that lifts the heart with hope. Nor do you have to be a musician to take encouragement, for every artistic field has its equivalent principles.
Now, this quality of the Goldbergs is something about the piece itself, and it's to do with its architecture and provenance and purpose, not with any particular performance. So why have I chosen these recordings, and why two of them instead of only one, and why two recordings -- separated by twenty-five years -- from the same performer instead of different performers?
Because the Goldbergs, as a composition, are about the possibilities of creation. In performance, they are about the possibilities of experience.
And here, I can do no other than ask you to go listen to two those two recordings above, each more than thirty-eight minutes in length, back to back.
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All done? Probably you didn't listen to it -- life is short -- and anyway, I kind of doubt you'd hear what I hear, because I've listened to these things hundreds of times over many years and come to have a particular emotional reading of it.
But that's the purpose of this challenge: to convey in words what we hear and feel.
The Goldbergs are about possibilities, and about the immense range and diversity of possibilities within a constrained universe; it's about the immense variety contained within a sequence of a mere thirty-two notes.
Now, if it were merely a demonstration that variety is possible, then it would have been enough for Bach to construct only two variations. To indicate the great range of styles that is possible, it would be enough construct three variations: a single canon, a single dance, and a single arabesque. To indicate the flexibility of invention, it would be enough to construct seven: canons at the unison, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh. To illustrate the tonal possibilities, again only two: one variation in the major mode, and one in the minor mode.
Bach does all of these, and more, and he does so many more that after awhile you begin to suspect that he's bragging. Seven or nine or a dozen variations would be enough to demonstrate the outer limits of the procedure; fifteen or seventeen or a score would show how many subtle flavors can be found. But thirty? The average listener, by the time one has reached the twelfth variation has probably felt that he has gotten the point. When the sixteenth variation grandly announces that things are starting all over again, that listener can probably be forgiven the agonized expression on his face.
But by the time he has reached the twenty-fifth variation, he has probably begun to sense something else about the set.
Bach is gone far beyond writing a demonstration project, and far beyond boasting of his talent and ingenuity. The sheer profusion has implied something else.
There is no end to what can be done. The invention can go on forever.
The Goldberg Variations are, to me, an intimation of infinity. The infinity of possible creation, and the infinity of possible experience. When I listen to them, I see the night sky -- a limitless vault of successive, unique wonders.
And I hear that demonstration most clearly through these two recordings, particularly when played back to back.
A quick word about Glenn Gould: He was one of the most famous -- and most controversial -- of twentieth century pianists. He never attained the stature of a Horowitz, or the popularity of a van Cliburn, mostly on account of his deeply eccentric approach to music. Where other artists modestly claimed that they were merely releasing the composer's intentions onto the world, Gould never hesitated to substitute his own judgment for the composer's. He acted as a co-creator, and a rather cantankerous co-creator, so critics never embraced him warmly. But even his greatest detractors admitted that he was an astonishing talent.
Anyway, he burst on the scene in 1955, with the first of the above recordings of the Goldbergs, and had an instant, bolt-from-the-blue hit with it. Like other of my choices, it has a mid-century vibe to it, a nervy insolence, and it's no surprise that Gould was a great fan of the Swingle Singers, for he had something of their need to remake the work of others in his own image. His 1955 recording of the Goldbergs is the musical statement of a young Brando or a James Dean. It's a bold declaration of intent: I am here to kick ass and overturn convention, if I cared enough to notice convention, let alone overturn it.
In 1981 he returned to the Goldbergs with a second recording and a different interpretation. Where the first recording shocked critics, the second one seemed to enrage them. It is daringly slow and meditative for most of its length, but also shockingly angry in others. It's an interpretation that grabs you by the ears and forces you to pay attention. For all its occasional fury, it is also cold and cerebral, and if the early recording sounds like something that would come from a Brando, the second sounds like it would come from a Kubrick.
But the differences are such that they lock together, at least in my experience, to create something that neither is on its own. When played back to back, they yield that intimation of infinity by giving its start and its ending.
Wait, you cry: How can an infinity have an "ending"? Isn't that the point of infinity, that you can start but never end? One, two, three, four, five ... and so on.
But it works the other way, too, if you consider zero the end of an infinity of negative numbers: ..., negative five, negative four, negative three, negative two, negative one, zero. And you can have both when you remember that there are infinite rational numbers between two integers. Imagine yourself listing all the fractions between 1 and 2. You can't recite them in order, for there is no smallest fraction to start with, nor a greatest fraction to end with, but you can at least begin a list of them: 1, 3/2, 4/3, 5/4, 19/16, 348/187, 6/4, 5/3, ... and you can even declare an end to them: ... 75/45, 89443/87323, 7/5, 19/16, 2. It's just that you can't join up the beginning and the end of these two partial lists.
This is what it is like for me when I listen to the two sets of the Goldbergs. I hear the beginning of an infinity ... and then I hear its end. It has taken the form of a journey.
The 1955 recording is fresh, exuberant, youthful. It sets off with measured excitement, but almost immediately begins to gallop from one discovery to another, trembling at each successive beauty and exulting over the accumulating diversity. It has the bright, arctic purity of a meadow on a high mountain, and the variations are like the wildflowers on a slope. The reappearance of the aria at the end does not bring closure, but only a backward glance. See how short the way is that we have traveled, it says, we can still touch the place where we started, and within the compass of this tiny space we have already discovered treasures only to be dreamed of. So the final chord does not end the journey, but turns our eyes forward, into the imagined infinite exploration to come.
And somewhere in the hiatus between the reprise of the Aria in the 1955 recording, and its appearance in the 1981 recording, that infinity is traversed.
The 1981 recording has been condemned as being "too slow." To my ears, though, it sounds deeper than that. It sounds bone weary. Foot sore. Exhausted. The steps are tentative, the intervals painful. It has the air of a traveler, long away, rounding a corner and seeing his destination ahead.
And he quails from it. All things must end, and the cottage at the end of the path is the terminal point of his infinite journey.
The variations that follow encompass an immense range of moods, showing far more emotion than the 1955 recording. Most of them, I think, are negative: fear, anger, regret, bitterness, a crying plea to be allowed more time and more exploration; the occasional tentative gestures of conciliation are ultimately withdrawn. Not until the final variation does it achieve a mood like acceptance.
Then the aria reappears. The tone is still slow, but after the wrenching emotions of what has come before it has the soft and rocking comfort of a lullaby. The traveler has reached his bed; sleep awaits; and though it is a final sleep, it is a well-earned one after his travels.
The first step into creative infinity; the last step from it. These two recordings of the Goldbergs bracket God's creation, and give us a faint brush of something very close to God's own experience of His world. So many worlds, and all of them contained within the tiniest of spaces.
How much there is when you see that tiniest of spaces as one of only an infinity of tiny spaces, each containing its own infinity?