Thirty Ways of Looking at an Aria

Sarah Darling, one of the Goldberg arrangers and the instigator of this week's program, wrote this post about the process of working with the piece. Enjoy! 

Two score and seventy-five years ago, a guy whose name translates to John Brook sat down and wrote a tune. 

Was it the best tune? Possibly it was, indeed, the best tune.

What we know for sure is that the guy loved the tune. And love makes everything it touches more beautiful. 

After he wrote the tune, the guy thought about it for a while. The more he thought about it, the more awesome it became. Some days it was really silly and cute. Other days it was radiant and still. Other days, it got really dramatic and sometimes, it must be said, the tune really made quite a fuss. Occasionally it got sad, and then everything became very quiet. But it would always perk up again, sometimes with a jolt, sometimes with a slow secret smile. No matter where the tune went, no matter what shape it took, even on that one crazy day when it decided to flirt with several other tunes simultaneously (!) at the end of the day, the guy always knew that it was still his beloved tune. He could still hear every note, every suspension, the supple curve of every ornament, the dappled light-and-shadow of major and minor, in the silence when the other music died away.

This is a story that begins with a happy ending. 

LIkely the next person to fall in love with the Aria from the Goldberg Variations was Bach's wife, Anna Magdalena. And the beautiful writing-out of the tune at the top of this email is actually hers - inserted into two blank pages of a book of keyboard works that was a present from JS. ("Hey, he forgot my favorite one! Let me just add it in...") 

There is something so magical about this piece. I feel as though nearly everyone I know has some kind of intimate relationship with it. When you listen to the Variations, and you watch the Aria undergo those amazing transformations from one movement to the next, each shift feels real, active, engaged. You believe in it all. Your mind turns into a cathedral full of notes and geometric shapes. And sometimes, as many folks have done over the years, you even think "Oh! I see it! That's what Bach was implying in that one! Wait... wait... I really want to write that down!"

It's amazing how the desire to arrange the Goldbergs almost feels like a tradition at this point. And it's a funny thing. Each arrangement is unique, and yet I swear, the process is not creative. I really mean that. It's one thousand percent interpretive. It's staring at something and asking the question "What are you?" It's not really all that different, perhaps, from playing them. The boldest creative act is the moment when you begin, when you say "I want to do this." So I did that last year, in a programming pitch for A Far Cry, and the group, amazingly, said "OK, let's go for it!"

Every variation takes you to a different place. Not just in the character of its music: also with what's implied. Some variations (why hello, French Overture) call out for massive, pompous forces. Others work so beautifully as a dance between two solo voices. Every single one was written for keyboard, though - and the thing that I don't understand about so many Goldberg arrangements is that they are always "for" something else. All you see are the implications, but you don't actually get to hear the beauty of the original source. So the idea behind this Goldberg arrangement pitch was to go all-out with a group that could do everything with its forces, both large and small - AND to invite a pianist to the party, because OF COURSE. (Our hearts collectively stopped when Simone Dinnerstein, one of the great Goldberg interpreters of any time, agreed to play with us) 

Arranging it has been an intense process. I split the task with Alex Fortes, and we worked with a small "brain trust" of Criers - thinking through options, imagining the interplay of different lines. Is it more like a concerto grosso or a trio sonata? What about pizzicato for this one? How many voices? What are the basses doing? Can the soloists for that one canon be in the back? There's a small army of various movement charts in our Googledocs...

What has been truly fascinating has been the evolution of each idea. Very, very, little has stayed the same. Things that I thought were hugely significant turned out to be sort of minor; throwaway ideas were sometimes magical. I really can't say more without issuing a spoiler alert. Adding Simone to the creative process (she graciously committed a lot of time to being a really active part of this arrangement) gave it yet another layer of coherence and focus. And rehearsals this week have been an utter joy - well, mostly. 9 times out of 10 it's the euphoric feeling of watching a statue come to life, or a two-dimensional creation acquire a third dimension. Occasionally, though, you put your head in your hands and think "That just sounds boring. What was I thinking?" 

And then you keep tweaking, experimenting, changing it up. Now it's the entire group that is taking control of the last stage of this creative/interpretive process. In a twist of fate, I'm not able to play the show this week, so I've been able to watch it grow from the outside and then gradually let go, knowing that it's in the best hands possible. 

I feel as though a part of me is still there in the performance, but I will openly admit that I'm going to regret not being a part of the thing that will happen for the first time when we play it for you. The thing where you watch that little tune as it grows and redefines itself again, again, and again, changing shape, changing size, changing affect, but always keeping a kernel of itself, until finally, after thirty metamorphoses (and one hard-core flirtation with various theme buddies in the final Quodlibet) you see it again, whole and complete. 


T.S. Eliot is so good at describing this moment. Here's something from the final pages of the Four Quartets that says it in the right way: 

We shall not cease from exploration. 
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.