A few Christmases back, my brother bought me Douglas Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Despite taking me 6 months to finish, it is a wonderful book about the human brain, artificial intelligence, paradox, mathematics, DNA, logic, and infinite loops. In it, Hofstadter explores Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorum (essentially stating that in any formal system, there is a statement that is true but cannot be proven) and compares it to the paradoxical art of M.C. Escher and the recursive quality of many of J.S. Bach’s musical works. I can’t recommend it enough, as it is a truly mind-bending read.
Among the things I was introduced to in the book, probably the most impactful and most enjoyable has been Bach’s Goldberg Variations. These are a series of variations based not on a melody (which is how theme and variations usually works), but rather on a harmony (the underlying chord structure). The variations each have their own unique character, tempo, and melody. Every third variation is a canon (like Row Row Row Your Boat… only better), and each successive canon has the second voice starting one note higher. They are complex, delightful, and utterly gorgeous. As a follow-up present, my brother bought me a triple CD set of Glenn Gould’s interpretation of the variations, one recorded in 1955 and one recorded in 1981. Gould is perhaps the best pianist ever, and his two recordings (particularly the 1981 version) are masterpieces. I hate playing the desert island game, because where would I even find the electricity to play the music, and why aren’t I using that power to get off the island; but so far I have only one album on my desert island list, and it is Gould’s 1981 recording.
Youtube has the video recording of Gould playing the complete variations, complete with the bizarre eccentricities of the man (grandiose gestures, singing along with the playing, and sitting 14 inches off the ground). If you have a spare 45 minutes or so, it’s worth checking out. Here is the complete video:
Probably my second favorite recording is a version by Stefan Hussong which uses the accordion instead of the piano. I know, big surprise that I like that one. It’s all the same melodies, but interpreted on an accordion instead, and it’s just breathtaking.
So, if you’d like to play along at home, indulge me for a minute. Literally for a minute. Put down your iPhone, stop shopping online, and by all means, don’t do any work! Take a listen to variation number 8 in the video below. That’s from the beginning to the 52 second mark. Just listen for what catches your ear.
This weekend, I was driving around doing errands, and I popped in the Stefan Hussong version of the Goldberg Variations. There are two things I usually listen for in particular in the piece. I love to hear the melodic interpretation of the theme in each variation, and I love to listen and pick out the lines of the canons as they come up. This time, though, for some reason I opted to focus instead on the bass lines that Bach wrote. Granted, I always listen for the bass lines; it’s kind of what tuba players do. But this time I wanted to shut out the melody and listen exclusively on the bass lines.
So this time, listen to the same variation, but ignore the melody and focus on the background lines. The bass lines, so to speak.
My experience in listening exclusively for the bass lines was sublime. Bach’s counterpoint is always amazing, but his bass lines are inspiring. He has these wonderful twists and turns that go along perfectly with the melodies. He also writes in patterns to keep the feel of the variation consistent. For example, I’ve posted the first few measures of Variation 8 below (the one you were just listening to, IF you did your homework).
Notice that the bass line (the bottom staff) has the same rhythm with slightly different notes. Each one is 4 eighth notes followed by 3 sixteenth notes. This gives the variation a certain cadence or beat that the listener can follow and that identifies the feel of the variation.
Listening for the bass lines exclusively was particularly helpful to me as a tubist, as I am frequently the bass instrument of the ensembles I play in. In the 20+ years I’ve been playing, I have mastered the standard polka oompah beat. Actually I mastered it back at year 1/2. So I’m always looking for interesting ways to present the bass line in the music I play. Depending on the ensemble, my options are different, but sometimes it’s hard not to just play the root of the chord. Hearing how Bach keeps it fresh gave me ideas for how to keep my own lines fresh.
After I finished listening to the entire set of variations in this new way, I felt like I had heard them all again for the first time. I looked into my car’s glove compartment and found Michael Jackson’s Thriller. So I popped in one of the most highly acclaimed albums ever and ignored the King of Pop, focusing instead on the bass lines.
It’s probably little surprise that I experienced the same kind of revelations while listening to Thriller. The guitar and bass lines of Beat It are angular and off the beat during the verses. During the chorus, they have that amazing ascending line that gives continuity and structure to the song. I mean, I had heard it a billion times, but I never really listened for it. And Thriller has the same bass line throughout the entire song except for during the bridge and the turnaround from the chorus to the verse. And yet it’s so effective, probably because of its pulsating, rapid-heartbeat-like groove. At the end it really becomes like a heartbeat with just two notes per measure.
Now I’m a tuba player, so I always am listening to the bass lines of songs. After this experiment, though, I realized that I wasn’t listening for the lines. I was passively taking in the bass line in the context of the music, rather than actively discerning the bass line from the rest of the music. And even though I was trying this new technique with a baroque Theme and Variations, I immediately saw applications to the different kinds of music I was playing. The bass lines in the songs I write can have a specific rhythmic structure for continuity. The lines I play in 20’s Jazz can utilize the small motion that Bach uses when changing chords. The more complex music I play in would sound great with Bach’s ornamentation. All these inspirational ideas come from just a small change in focus.
Granted, you may not be a tuba player looking for new lines to play, but the same kinds of shift in focus can be revelatory for you as well. What would it be like to focus only on the positive components of a relationship, just for a change of scene? What could you discover if you intensely examined the processes of your department instead of focusing on the output? Ignore the figurative parts of a Van Gogh painting, and see what you can find with only paint textures to guide you. Shifting your focus in this delicate and fun way can provide you with new ideas, while giving a fresh perspective.
Maybe then you can learn how to get off the desert island rather than accumulating stuff for it.
I’ll leave you with Variation 20, my favorite of the bunch: