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Glenn Gould's Recording Session for the Goldberg Variations, 1981

BACH/GOULD: THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS

Very often we expect art to be perfect, especially performances. We look for the pristine clockwork that suggests a well-oiled machine borne out of hours, days and weeks of rehearsal and practice. Consider Malcolm Gladwell’s theory that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something. Do we want to see those 10,000 hours, though? Or do we want to see the expert?

I say all of this to introduce Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Bach’s piano works are known for their precision and perfection. The Goldberg Variations were written for a student of his, 30 variations on one central theme. There’s a dynamic in here of these pieces seeming like study pieces, essentially homework, combined with their focus on one central idea explored in 30 different ways that speaks to the work that goes behind that outer veneer of perfection.

And what I love about Glenn Gould’s recordings of the Goldberg Variations (one made in 1956, one made in 1981), is not their perfection. Rather, it’s the slight imperfections. Gould famously hummed during his recording sessions and when you turn the volume up high enough, you can hear it on the recordings. Even through remasters, they leave that in. The visual complement to this are his scores. With all of the markings, they form their own works of art.

Musician Sean Malone says of Gould’s famous humming:

“Gould was not only aware of the surface material, that is, the notes themselves, but was also aware of a larger framework of background structure manifested in the independent lines of his humming. Gould may have visualized a large-scale, amodal image of the composition's structure — an abstract conception of themes, climaxes, and form, etc. — transcending the tactile and physical requirements of performing the piece.”

Today’s contemplation: How may your imperfections actually enhance perfection? What structure do you see beneath the surface of perfection? Where do you hum? What are your score markings?