When I first saw the sheet music for today’s piece, I was a bit boggled. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a piece that sounded less like it looked! You might figure it for some sort of virtuosic toccata thing, all flash and texture, but no, it is slow, minimal melody with a lush, dark accompaniment.
The notation makes a little more sense if you think of Bach’s preludes. Do I grow predictable claiming everything is full of Bach? Very well, I grow predictable. This one is full of Bach: the layering; the figuration built out of a series of surprising chord changes, and the sense of counterpoint hidden in those changes; the walks around the circle of fifths.
Really, I don’t know how the twentieth century managed to stay so obsessed for so long with the idea of newness at all costs; all that paranoia about being derivative was really overblown, and I hope we’re growing out of it. The best art, it seems to me, always derives from the past, and escapes imitation through synthesis, not through obsessive novelty.
Learning this, I felt like Brahms was searching in some of the same places I am in my own composition: the piece is perpetually ambiguous and unresolved, yet within that ambiguity is a deep sense of order, an abundance of logical patterns. It’s a powerful tension, simultaneous ambiguity and order. The effect is strongly emotional, but it’s hard to name exactly what the emotion is. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader (one with no right answer)!
Not everybody might think of ambiguity as being a compliment or a desirable thing, but I do. One of music’s magical abilities is to be ambiguous in the way that life is ambiguous, that the moment-to-moment experience of consciousness is ambiguous. We have a very natural desire to understand music, to try to figure out what it “means” and what we’re supposed to think about it. Music, however, doesn’t like to be pigeonholed that way. In real life, we don’t experience emotions one at a time, or in black and white — we usually make sense of them in retrospect, finding names and narratives only as we look back on experience. Music works that way as well, and gives us a way of distilling and becoming comfortable with all the confusingly multiple moment-to-moment ebb and flow of our minds and hearts. It is a way of looking back on our own experience without flattening it the way ordinary words can. It’s often hard to say even whether a piece is basically happy or sad — and that is a wonderful thing if you embrace it.
This is the second in a set of three pieces, the first of which was the first piece I posted in this blog. I don’t play the third yet, though I certainly mean to in the future — it is also a marvelous piece, and the three together are among my favorite music in this world.