I don’t listen to enough live music, but who does? And of the tiny amount of live music that I do go and see/hear, it’s even rarer that it is the real core material, the songs closest to the heart. I can think of only one or two experiences of that kind, and they have been almost as unsettling as straightforwardly enjoyable. I couldn’t really believe what was happening when Dylan began to bark out “Desolation Row” in his gondolier’s hat and minimal moustache. You? Genius? Here? In Brixton? It didn’t quite compute.
So I just don’t think I had many cultural or emotional references when we booked to go and see the Goldberg Variations at Kings Place last month. Incidentally, what is even the right verb here? Do you listen to live music, see it, hear it, or just go to it? I know that you hear evensong, and I can see how classical music might fall into that usage, but I am not sure that you hear Bach. You certainly don’t see it/him or “go.” Who is travelling towards who? (On balance, I think you probably listen to Bach. You try to hear. You hope to hear.) Anyway, we really didn’t think very much about the whole deal. We looked at the listings for Bach Unwrapped. Got excited. Clicked on the Goldberg Variations dates. Love Goldberg Variations. Listen to Goldberg Variations a lot. In the car. In the flat. Got nephew a book for Christmas purely because the title was a pun on the Goldberg Variations. Also got nephew the Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould, 1955). Nephew two months old. Never too young for Goldberg Variations. Anyway, we got tickets in the front row, went about our business, occasionally said things like, “Can’t believe we’re going to Bach this week,” and turned up a few minutes before it began.
If you haven’t been to Kings Place, it’s a bit like being inserted into the chamber of some large, as-yet-uninvented wooden instrument. We sat down, everyone was older than us, and then Miki Skuta, the pianist, appeared through a doorway onto the stage. In pictures, Mikuláš Škuta (Slovakian) looks like the knowledgeable virtuoso that he is. His website says it: “All-out gifted artist.” But that night he looked heavy, concerned, lugubrious; like a border guard about to begin a shift. I could hear his shoes on the polished stage. I was struck, panicked almost, by the intimacy: not just because of our proximity to Skuta, the sense of missing nothing, but because of the sudden preciousness of what he was about to pick up, and plunge into, and pull apart, and fill us with.
It’s still hard to figure out, almost three weeks later, why those first few notes, those utterly familiar clamber-up, clamber-down phrases, managed to be so shocking. P and I both looked away. Something hurt. It was as if Skuta was operating on a relative. We needed to be there. It needed to be fine. But there was an agony too. I think it has to do with sharing. Until that moment, I had only ever heard the Goldberg Variations on my own (mostly on my own) or with P. Like most of the Bach that I know, I find it intensely interior music. It gets in me immediately. The notes are like thoughts and there is such a pleasing simultaneous complexity and pattern that I find myself hooked up to something that feels like a larger and stronger mind: carried away and brought closer to myself at the same time. Going to Bach. Coming to Bach. Whatever it is, it turned out to be very surprising that Skuta was daring to play these notes, to interpose himself in the middle of this very private event. And not just Skuta, but the whole room—all these people with their cloth shopping bags and closed eyes. It is very childish but I had not realised that these were not my variations.
They were, of course, if they were anybody’s in that wood-wound room, Skuta’s variations. As he played (hands crossing over themselves, fingers spiderous) it began to occur to me—but only in the smallest way—what kind of a relationship that Skuta must have formed with the music. I don’t know how many notes there are in the Goldberg Variations—there must be thousands—but there was not a question of him being able to remember them. They had, over the years, in the unheated halls, on Slovakian public transport, in his sleep, become his thoughts as well. And while I did not agree with every single one of Skuta’s expressions – sometimes his playing was just a shade too technical, a micro-inch too precise for how I imagine the music (which, after all, is just the Glenn Gould version)–I had to confront the idea of an entirely different level of association, of inhabitance, of knowledge. I was listening to the Goldberg Variations, but I was also witnessing Skuta and his life with them.
And existing, somehow, in all of this was Bach. That was almost the most surprising element of the night—and also the most ethereal, so I didn’t quite grasp it: where did he fit into all of this? If the first thought that humbled me, amid the pleasure, was that there were, in fact, other people in London equally excited and equally moved by the idea of listening to the Goldberg Variations on a Thursday night in January and I would have to share Bach with them. And the second thought was that a Slovakian maestro called Miki Skuta had been playing the piano for more than 40 years before being able to offer a fully wrought interpretation of this work. Then the third was about the mind that came up with these variations in the first place.
This is still far too large for me to get my head around. It would be like explaining the Milky Way, or Japan. But one very obvious, and new, thing did occur to me, watching Skuta, hearing Bach, was quite what an exhibition this music was. Until I saw those fingers, those hands, those shoes, I think my experience, my pleasure in the Goldberg Variations, had been in their construction—in the filigree, the pattern-making—but now I realised there was also the drama of their execution. This music was physical as much as it was intellectual and emotional, and there just aren’t that many people that can play it. This was something to make you gasp. Whatever else he was thinking in 1741, Johann Sebastian, with his “Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals,” was out to blow some tiny minds.