Day 6: In Which I Lose My Mind

It was late. A steaming, congealing plate of nachos had just emerged from my microwave oven and my esophagus steadied itself for yet another ill-advised insertion. On the windowsill, my score of the Allemande stood, begrimed, bravely withstanding my strung-out glances, surrounded by poignant, desiccated remainders of Vietnamese takeout. Skeletons of spring rolls, mummies of dumplings, dark phantoms of prawns. Ah, some people really knew how to live; if only I were one of them! Outside, in the breeze beyond Bach, taxis honked, buses squeaked and squealed, and distant domestic disputes were carried, reverberant and miffy, down invisible Amsterdam Avenue; then, all was quiet. I heard only my keyboard clicking, seemingly of its own volition, googling scraps of my subconscious while I sat helpless in a salsa stupor. Day 6, day 6.

And then, I found myself staring at these words on my computer screen, program notes for some Bach Society:

[The D major Partita Allemande:] Typical of all allemandes, this one begins with a short upbeat. It is written in 4/4 time, and makes frequent use of scalar figures …

… riveted, I read on …

Harmonically, this allemande is relatively straightforward, set clearly in D major, with the goal of the first half being the establishment of A major, the dominant key. The second half returns after a fashion to the tonic key. Nonetheless, Bach includes a few more colorful chords periodically either to help promote the progress towards the new tonal goal, or simply for variety.

Friend M, the other day, theorized, through motion, what might happen if a Roomba were ever allowed to function within the geometrical confines of my apartment. His pantomime involved a number of spastic jerks, rampant confusion, finally perhaps a shiver of rage, and, inevitably, an explosion. It’s exactly how I behaved upon reading this passage on my computer, which is why I should never ever be allowed to read program notes. My dutifully crafted nachos were forgotten; I glowered, expostulated, seethed, leapt from my chair sending takeout containers flying into dusty corners, where they remain.

My friends tell me I just take it all too personally. They’re just program notes! But really: “this allemande is relatively straightforward”? Are you KIDDING me? In what zoned-out crazy harmony land is this allemande straightforward? And then I bet Bach would have loved the bit where he returns “after a fashion” to the tonic key … (you try returning to the tonic better than that, buddy! he would say, brandishing a heavy foamy stein, cussing all the way home on cobbled streets to indulge in activities leading to child #14) and if this program-note writer is to be believed, we are to imagine Bach there throwing in unusual harmonies, just for kicks and giggles, just to spice up life a bit, in the same way that I might decide to get a Mr. Pibb on the plane instead of my usual Ginger Ale.

But perhaps my least favorite sentence of all: “the goal of the first half is to establish the dominant.” Oh yes? That’s the goal of the first half? Behind this sentence hides a terrible rhetorical monster, through which so often classical works become like patients on the operating table; doctors observe their symptoms, nod sagely, do more tests, come back with answers. But luckily every so often the patient sneaks out of the institution we are keeping him in, breaks through a window or sneaks out a back door, and heedless of his hospital gown, moons the wide world.

I hate seeing this Allemande (I almost wrote “my” Allemande) treated like one of the patients. What draws me to this Allemande is, in a way, how little sense it makes, how undiagnosable it is. As an Allemande, indeed, it has issues, you could even pronounce it “irregular” or a bit “bizarre,” but its illnesses are only to be celebrated.

We are familiar with Debussy wanting to forgo the “musical mathematics” and declaring “pleasure is the law,” i.e. separating sound from function … but Bach too, though in love with function and perhaps its greatest practitioner, is also simply a lover of sound, sounds. Each day a different cluster of pitches in this Allemande draws my gaze, seems like the hidden beauty I had been missing all my life; each day I find a different one (even if it’s the same.) Without those changing wows, I would not have been drawn to this obsessive blogging maneuver, which has weirdly brought my brain to the threshhold of the place where I think the Allemande lives, somewhere just on the edge …

But to regain my senses, and to erase those program notes from the brain, perhaps this passage of Nabokov will suffice:

In a sense, we all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles–no matter the imminent peril–these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different from commonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.

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  1. rednepentha
    Posted May 15, 2007 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    what’s a roomba? sounds like a wild and crazy rhumba. at least the nachos didn’t go flying all over the place.

    i guess it’s because you take things seriously that you sound so good.

  2. Lane Savant
    Posted May 16, 2007 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Your mind is not lost, it’s just the ache of a brilliant mind in top gear.
    I did not think that my admiration of Bach could be greater, but you have enhanced it.
    One more to go, breath steadily, drink your gatorade, the finish line is near.
    When this is over, there’s Oprah.

  3. Jacque
    Posted May 16, 2007 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    Wow, I usually drink ginger ale when I fly, too!

    Click for roomba

  4. Anonymous
    Posted May 16, 2007 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Boy did I need that Nabokov quote today. And one always needs Bach.

    Keep it up.

  5. Valerie
    Posted May 16, 2007 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Jeremy, I have just fished out my Partita No 4 and read through the Allemande– and I think it is even weirder than you had led me to believe! I think bar 37’s insistent C major-ness for example, feels so out of context as to cause me to rethink C major completely!
    Thanks you so much for these posts- they are fabulous!

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