Help Wanted

Joey Guidone [NYTimes]

Joey Guidone [NYTimes]

I count ninety-six pieces of J.S. Bach’s “Das Wohltemperirte Klavier” (The Well-tempered Clavier — does “tempered” mean “tuned”?). I don’t know if ninety-six is the canonical count. I may have miscounted. I purchased the recording from iTunes some years ago and usually access it on my iPhone. I’ve never listened to the whole series in one sitting because it goes on for hours. I stake out arbitrarily a dozen or so pieces, and switch to Laurindo Almeida or Charlie Byrd when I realize I’ve listened to music that has a dizzying torrent of notes struck at unstintingly strict tempo, now with muscular dexterity, now with serene detachment, by Angela Hewitt long enough, not to want to pierce my temple with an icepick necessarily, but to become testy.

It’s me, not Bach (or Ms. Hewitt).

I feel like this profligate genius, this “stolid” family man and church organist, Herr Bach, is having his way methodically and sublimely with musical mysteries that are over my head. It’s not narrative music like “Night on Bald Mountain” or “Peter and the Wolf.” It’s cerebral, even somewhat technical music, I surmise, and I would give a lot to get guidance from a musician (or musicologist?) who would help me not just listen to these exercises — is that what they are? — but also understand what they’re doing. This hankering for greater insight reminds me a little of the pleasure I get from conjugating model verbs, both regular and irregular. It’s the savoring of ordered complexity, of the serried rigor of eighth-notes and inflections. It’s diving past the petty shore ripple and into the big waves where the serious surfers play. Except I’m not that strong a musical swimmer, or maybe the metaphor requires me to say I don’t have a surfboard.

It strikes me that with painting I don’t need someone to tell me what I’m seeing, even if it’s otherworldly, but with music I’m over my head, at least in Baroque waters, though I must say I have a much better time with Bach’s cello compositions. I’ve heard them adapted to guitar, also, and either way they sound more modern and less… mechanical (an ugly word) to me.

I fantasize fishing out my Ramírez from its velvet coffin and laboriously fingering by ear — I’m not fluent in notation but I have a wicked ear — some of the melodic lines that Bach puts out in this torrent of keyboard music. Maybe translating patches of it to the fretboard will help me get smarter at listening to it.

[Copyright (c) 2018 James Mansfield Nichols. All rights reserved.]

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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2 Responses to Help Wanted

  1. cindy knoke says:

    I listened to The Well Tempered Clavier constantly as a kid.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JMN says:

      You have a discriminating ear! I wish I had been exposed to Bach in my youth. Music was catch-as-catch-can in my household, lots of radio standards, some Gershwin and Broadway tunes. I listened to the first 10 or so of the Clavier pieces last night while sitting out with my dog. The first one is very lyrical and sad. I’ve heard in at least one popularized vocal setting. I get the impression that the pieces become more complex as they progress.


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