“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”
J. S. Bach: F# Minor Toccata
by Bill Holm (1943 – 2009)
The music weeps, not for sin
but rather for the black fact
that we must all die, but not one
of us knows what comes after.
This music leaps from key to key
as if it had no clear place to arrive,
making up its life, one bar at a time.
But when you come at last to the real theme,
strict, inexorable, and bleak,
you must play it slow and sad,
with melancholy dignity, or you miss
all its grim wisdom.
In three pages, it says, the universe collapses,
and you-still only halfway home.
Glenn Gould 1932 – 1982
by Bill Holm
A man who played the piano with as much genius as it is possible to contain in a human being said he trusted machines and electricity more than he trusted humans in a room. Henceforth, he would play only for steel wire and thin tape, genius saved from coughing, wheezing and all possibility of disagreeable whispers and remarks.
He took his first machine, the piano, and chiseled, filed, and muffled it until it suited his music and was like no other such machine on earth – a name brand of one. He sat on his second machine, an old chair that squeaked and rocked and comforted him.
He waited until the middle of the night to have perfect silence for his music, then moved his two peculiar machines into a sealed sound-locked room where not even the vibration of a human foot could ever be felt. There he played, safe at last from the rest of us, and even, he thought, from himself.
But when Bach or Haydn came on him, he started singing in a low and ugly hum, out of tune, with everything his hands were doing. No machine could take this noise away or clear it without losing the music, too, so he was left with an awful choice. Give up principle or give up beauty.
He chose music, hums and all, a glad hypocrite like us. Only failed ideals and wrong turnings will ever get you anywhere on earth or make anything with beauty or energy inside it. In the Bach F# Minor Fugue, or the slow C major tune in the Haydn sonata, the awful humming overwhelms the perfect technology and everyone with ears tuned right is glad of it.
That hum is his ghost, still alive, but also it is the invisible audience sneezing and hacking; it is the ignorant applause after the wrong movement; its pigeons in the rafters of the hall, cooing for bread; it is me blowing my nose and wiping my tears of joy in this music – in this odd, grand failure of a man.
Both poems appear in Playing The Black Piano. 2004. Milkweed Editions.