Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Katharine Kilalea revisits Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-Flat Major.
Driving home from the swimming pool one day, I listened to famous people on the radio describing themselves as either happy or unhappy. They preferred, on the whole, to say, “I choose to be happy,” which irritated me, so I switched to another station, which was playing Bach’s Partita No. 1 in B-Flat Major. The partita’s gigue—meaning jig—had a kinetic energy about it. I danced with my head. It seemed, while listening to it, that everything was dancing. A cricket match was on in the local park and the Bach infected the game with its rhythm, giving the throwing and catching of the ball, the umpire’s gestures, and the batting an elegance and coordination.
My fingers drummed along on the steering wheel, or tried to, because Gould was playing, and Gould is always on fast-forward, his hands skipping so quickly over each other it was hard to say which was which. The outlines of the sounds were unclear, also, because despite having poured olive oil into my ears for several days, I had swimmer’s ear, which gave even the smallest noise an unrefined booming quality. Perhaps I could play this myself, I thought. Perhaps I could order the sheet music off Amazon. The piano would appreciate the company. It hadn’t been touched since New Year’s Eve when a friend’s new boyfriend—who would commit suicide shortly after—subjected us to a performance of Rachmaninoff. It was odd, most people play Rachmaninoff with feeling—because Rachmaninoff is full of feelings—but he just played it very loud and very fast. Impressively fast, really, but hard on the ear.
In South Africa, on the highways, you drive so fast that there’s not enough time to take control if something goes wrong. Some days I’d get into the car and just drive around all day listening to music. The driving produced a kind of lightness in me, a strange freedom, a powerful powerlessness, maybe, like being drunk, a sense that life—my life—didn’t matter that much (which echoed the sense I had generally, in South Africa, of living in close proximity to death). Driving in London is awful, everyone is in traffic all the time. But still, it gives me back a part of myself that I lost by leaving South Africa.
I tried while driving to think about what it was about the piece that I enjoyed, but it was hard to register what I was hearing because I didn’t have a score to which I could refer, so the patterns were fleeting and disappeared too quickly to analyze. So I stopped thinking about the music and started thinking about myself. I remembered a piece I’d played as a child in a piano recital at Johannesburg’s Great Hall. Not this piece, but something very similar, whose energy or excitement—or sheer volume of notes, maybe—caused my fingers to race until they lost their bearings and had to stop. “Sorry,” I said to the audience. “Can I start over?”
The gigue is just over a minute long, gone too quickly to sink into. A theme unravels, repeats, unravels a third time—starting on a higher note—adds a run of ascending and descending notes, then ends. There is no variation in volume or tempo, not unlike a piece by Beckett, so nothing stands out. The whole thing is so flat that it feels somehow mechanical, less like a human, more like a computer. There are no changes in key signature, no leaps of melody (only a handful of notes get played, really), no climax or tension, no discord and resolution, no angst, no sentimentality, no brooding mystery, no wonder, no longing, no curiosity or desire, the music is so totally colorless that nothing catches your attention. If I were to draw the structure of the piece I would draw a downward slope, a slide. Why, then, did I like the piece so much? Was it the variation of themes which was so pleasing? Or my sensitivity to the similarity of sounds (or the desire to differentiate them)? Who knows. In any case, Gould plays so fast that there’s no time to think about what you’re listening to. Perhaps, I thought, it was the inability to analyze which was so enjoyable, the pleasure of not being able to think.
So much in literature is made of unhappiness, not least by me! My notebooks are so littered with the ugly things I’m always dredging up that I sometimes wonder whether this sad and stupid business of writing isn’t what brings unhappiness into being. Yet of the many things which frighten me—fears of illness and being overwhelmed and hurting one’s parents and being alone, and realizing that life is about being alone, and being self-involved—the worst is my fear of being unable to express the joyous aspects of things. Perhaps this line of questioning had disoriented me because I nearly had an accident while parking the car. For a moment, my heart sank, then the relief kicked in. What makes something wonderful? Well relief, primarily! Not being guilty! How wonderful it was not to have to exchange insurance details!
I wonder what Bach thought of himself, in the grand scheme of things. Of course, I can’t be sure that the Partita isn’t about Bach, but I certainly don’t feel the need, listening to it, to ask myself, What did Bach mean by this? or, What did Bach feel about that? Between God and his twenty children, he must’ve felt relatively insignificant. In South Africa, in the years immediately after Apartheid, I felt insignificant. Thinking too deeply about oneself felt out of place, even irresponsible, in that political context. I was relieved to move to London and be allowed to think about myself. Yet, some years later, when an older woman told me that having a child “drains all your selfishness away.” The idea was appealing. Having just spent several nights in and out of the hospital with a febrile eight-month-old, I know what she means. And yes, there’s a pleasure, a liberty even, in feeling that I do not have mastery of life anymore.
On my bedside stool are several books which I am avoiding reading. I’ve bought the books because their authors are writers I admire, and because their subject matter—marriage, motherhood and mortgages—pertains to me. I have the idea that these books might speak to me, that they might have insights about me and my situation, that if I read them my life might become freer or easier or better somehow. So much in my life has been disappointing. So much has not turned out the way I hoped it would. By reading these books, I feel, I might read a braver or better (or more willing, at least) self into being. I might do something. I might somehow change my life. So I avoid them, because I am tired and unwilling, and because the idea of doing something exhausts me (and do you know how when you are exhausted things touch you more immediately)?
And yet … and yet … See Gould, photographed, proudly hunched over the piano! How many pages are dedicated to that famously awkward pose. On the one hand, it seems a pity not to have found a way of playing that wasn’t so obviously uncomfortable (perverse, even, to have gone on damaging himself in that way), but on the other hand, isn’t it wonderful to give up? To leave things as they are? To not strive? Isn’t it a pleasure—a musical pleasure, really, the pleasure of rhythm, which is allied, of course, to the pleasure of repetition—not to hope that things will be different, like the remarkable enjoyment I get listening to a piece by Bach, in which the final three chords will, almost always, sound exactly the same?
Katharine Kilalea is the author of the novel OK, Mr. Field, which was serialized in three parts in The Paris Review’s issues 223–225.