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"Does the Goldberg Variations count as one song?"

Andrew laughed at me. "No."

"Well, one of them then," I said.

I'd never before had the terribly British experience of being asked what my Desert Island Discs would be, and I was making this up as I went along.

My first couple of answers were similar to what James and Andrew had given -- pieces of music that were particularly important to me, or particular favorites of mine -- I have to include "Born in the U.S.A.," and "Finale" from Dvorak's New World Symphony, and the song that a favorite musician of Andrew's and mine wrote for our wedding.

I think I asked about the Goldberg Variations right after that, though, because on some level I realized that if I was on a desert island I'd be really upset and I'd really miss Andrew, so "Now's Eternity" (the song at our wedding) would just hurt and make me sad. So I thought of soothing things, and of course the first that leapt to mind was Goldberg.

I recently heard a story about how the Goldberg Variations were written, thanks to one of my new obsessions: Jarvis Cocker's Wireless Nights, an occasional series I love and find really captivating; that link has all the episodes as podcasts and I can't recommend them enough if you like humans or music or poetry or life. Anyway, the story Jarvis Cocker whispered into my ears (I find to my amusement I can only listen to Wireless Nights when it is night, or when I'm on a train -- something about the expansiveness and intensity of it seems to suit those things particularly -- and at those times I use headphones) goes something like this:
[For this work] we have to thank the instigation of the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. ... Once the Count mentioned in Bach's presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation. But since at this time all his works were already models of art, such also these variations became under his hand. Yet he produced only a single work of this kind. Thereafter the Count always called them his variations. He never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights meant: 'Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.'
As a chronic insomniac, I was intrigued and maybe even delighted to find that I wasn't the only one who wanted something soothing and yet distracting to listen to during my sleepless hours. I've often wondered what I'd do before the podcasts and audiobooks I use: turns out, if I were lucky enough to be a Count who knew J.S. Bach, I could've had him write me something. What a delicious idea.

But, whether the story is true or not, I can imagine they'd be good for insomnia: soothing and yet cheerful. The Goldberg variations are not stupefying or dense; they may not inspire awe like some of Bach's other skilled and impressive work, but I wouldn't want to be left alone on an island with the distant, inspirational Bach. I'd want this cozy, bedroom-antechamber Bach. I'd want the company on the desert island.

And from there the rest of my "Desert Island Discs" amused me by sort of missing the point of the game, which is to pick songs you particularly like or that say something about you or have a meaning or a story or something entertaining associated with them. I picked songs to comfort me in my isolation and get me through what would no doubt be a terrible experience for me. Quartet for the End of Time* (which should be awfully sad, drenched in the Holocaust as it is, but inexplicably is a favorite of mine; still if I want less somber Messaien, there's always Turangalila). I think I said Ave Maria, too. And maybe The Flower Duet. And Gymnopédie, naturally.

It's strange to think of the things I fall back on. I wouldn't have expected it to be all western art music I find so durable, able to withstand the hatred I have for anything played too often.

But still, I am happy I am not stranded on a desert island, and able to listen to lots of music, and talk to people, and do lots of things.


* That's a particularly cool video I stumbled across there, I think, because it shows you the sheet music so if you're a music nerd like me you can follow along as they play...or just sit back and be even more impressed than you were that people manage to play these things at all, especially in the circumstances of the original performance:
Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered World War II. He was captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz, Germany (now Zgorzelec, Poland). While in transit to the camp, Messiaen showed the clarinetist Henri Akoka, also a prisoner, the sketches for what would become Abîme des oiseaux. Two other professional musicians, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier, were among his fellow prisoners, and after he managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil from a sympathetic guard, Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano...

The quartet was premiered at the camp, outdoors and in the rain, on January 15, 1941. The musicians had decrepit instruments and an audience of about 400 fellow prisoners and guards.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-30 10:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] menthe-reglisse.livejournal.com
Yes! I always think this about Desert Island Discs. Most of the music I love best moves me to tears and much of it is associated with particular people and times, and being alone on a Desert Island would be so awful that the last thing I'd need would be that kind of music. I mean, I suppose it might be good to have one or two pieces that made you cry, in case you wanted to have a therapeutic weep, but really, the scenario just doesn't work with the way the task is always interpreted.

I didn't know that about the Goldberg variations - thank you, that's a really good back story to know. Were they not indissolubly associated with my children, I might have The Well Tempered Klavier for the same kind of reasons. I love the geeky thoroughness of working through all the keys, and the thing about the well-tempered tuning system, even though I only half understand it. And the tunes, of course.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-30 04:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] menthe-reglisse.livejournal.com
No, not just you - as I see I wrote back in 2012 when DIDs had some anniversary http://menthe-reglisse.livejournal.com/140027.html

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-30 01:17 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] haggis.livejournal.com
I don't think I've ever knowingly listened to the Goldberg Variations. That's not a boasted ignorance - I would like to but I'm intimidated by it. I know I have no musical talent, no rhythm and a poor aural memory so I feel completely at sea when people talk about music in any technical way. I don't really understand what a key is for example (I looked it up on Wikipedia and it turns out I understand it even less than I thought I did!)

Would it be really boring to ask you to listen to it with me at some time and explain what I am supposed to be hearing?

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-31 12:51 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] newandrewhickey.livejournal.com
Bach is a composer who, while he's a very, very, intellectual composer in many ways, doesn't require much in the way of knowledge to appreciate. So many of the techniques he created have become standard parts of the toolbox that all you really need is to have a pair of ears -- the music is *obviously* good, rather than needing explanation (though like anything, the more you know, the better).

As for what keys are, it's very simple. I'll explain properly below, but TL:DR version is that the key of a piece of music is the note you expect it to finish on in order to sound properly finished.

Fuller (though still glossing over stuff) explanation:

Some notes sound better with each other than others, so for example if you play the notes C and G together, it sounds harmonious, while if you play C and F# together it sounds unpleasant to many people. (You can hear the first of those here (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/20/Perfect_fifth_on_C.mid) and the second here (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/58/Tritone_on_C.mid)).

[The reason they sound good together is generally because their frequencies are integer multiples of each other or have common factors, so the waves reinforce each other -- you don't *need* to know that, but you're an engineer so might want to -- it's all to do with resonance]

For each of the twelve notes we normally use, there are six other notes that go well with it -- those notes go up in stages of 1 tone, 1 tone, 1 semitone, 1 tone, 1 tone, 1 tone. For C, for example, those notes are D, E, F, G, A, and B -- all the white notes on the piano.

When your brain hears those notes together, either in chords or as melodies, it thinks subconsciously "these are all the notes that go well together with C", and any melody with those notes will feel like it's finished when it ends on C, but wouldn't if it ended on D. So when you hear a melody like that, that's in the key of C.

Generally speaking, a song in the key of C will also start on C, or at least have its first important note be C, to let you know at the start what the key is.

I hope that helps, rather than confuses you further, but if you ever want me to demonstrate on an actual musical instrument I'd be glad to explain the rudiments of music theory to you.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-31 01:07 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] newandrewhickey.livejournal.com
(And when I say rudiments I do mean rudiments -- "this is what a scale is and why it's important", "this is what a key is and why it's important", "this is what chords are", and so on -- rather than "as you can clearly tell the basic pulse is a modified nanigo rhythm, but overlaid on that is a counterrhythm in 13/17 time; the main melody is in the Locrian mode, but uses occasional passing tones that hint at the Doric")

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-31 07:03 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] haggis.livejournal.com
Thank you, that's really useful! I've read the bit about ratios before but never connected with the sounds.

Re the sound clips - I don't 'feel' either of them sounds more or less harmonious. It took me 5 listens to tell the difference between them! That's actually useful knowledge - I think it's like colourblindness - I don't doubt the difference is real and obvious to other people but I can't perceive it.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-31 01:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] haggis.livejournal.com
No, I'm finding this conversation really interesting! I do realise that I made a sweeping statement based on a very small sample but I'd be really keen to listen more and see if I can hear what other people can hear in those tones.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-31 04:34 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] newandrewhickey.livejournal.com
This might help more. This (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/18/Diminished_seventh_chord_on_C.mid) is a diminished 7th chord -- that's the chord with all the most discordant notes together, including the dischord I linked above. While you do often get diminished sevenths in pop songs (I've used a fair few myself), they mostly make people sound uneasy, so you use them to build up tension, and you often find this chord in horror film music or things parodying it like the "scary" bits in Scooby-Doo.

This (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/95/Major_seventh_chord_on_C.mid), on the other hand, is a major seventh, which is all the most consonant notes together. You'll often hear this chord in slick seventies soft-rock -- Bread, Paul McCartney, Chicago, America, Carole King, people like that.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-10-31 10:31 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] newandrewhickey.livejournal.com
Yeah, what Holly said. Those two intervals are actually as similar as they can be without being the same -- but the first is called a "perfect fifth", while the second used to be called the "diabolus in musica" (the devil in musical form) and banned from music altogether.

But again like Holly, I took a LONG time to properly get my ear in to the distinction between things like minor and major chords -- and I can still get fooled by a lot of other stuff and think one is the other.

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