Do you like childlike simplicity or weird abysses?
by TOM HUIZENGA
Bach's Goldberg Variations are filled with contrasts. Contrasts that swirl inside the head of pianist Jeremy Denk who, seated at his own living room Steinway, muses about how Bach built two of his most opposite variations — the simplistic No. 18 and the brooding No. 25.
No. 18 is Denk's sentimental favorite, so amazing, he says, in how Bach "finds this kind of profundity in something that is so basic so childlike." On the other end of the spectrum, in which everything loses its innocence completely, is the 25th variation. Here we get "dropped into some weird abyss," as Bach fills notes in the bass line that maximize shock value. There's a sense "that everything's being torn into bits."
CreditsProduced by Mito Habe-Evans and Tom Huizenga; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Production Assistance: Amanda Ameer and Anatasia Tsioulcas; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Keith Jenkins
Originally published by NPR: http://www.npr.org/event/music/149948193/jeremy-denk-vs-the-goldberg-variations-contrasting-variations
There is a depth in childlike simplicity. Witness the falling of a single bit of ash from incense on a plate. Witness haiku poetry. Witness the silence of Zen sitting. There is a need in life to pare things down to the bone, to burn away the chaff, to focus on the one thing necessary. Sometimes our hearts yearn for the splendor of the simple, freedom from frills, freedom to say "this and only this." Listen to No. 18 of the Goldberg Variations.
And there is also a wonder in weird abysses, where we fall into a chaos of multiplicity, with nothing to hang onto but the wind and the wildness. Everything solid melts into air, says Karl Marx. Sometimes it can be painful, but there can be a joy in the falling, an intensity in the melting, a letting to into creativity and wonder, that the pure of heart might never understand. Listen to No. 25 of the Goldberg Variations.
It is tempting to form a binary in our minds and judge one as better than the other in absolutist terms, but it seems to me that a wise heart knows that there wisdom in both and that the very contrast between childlike simplicity and weird abysses can have a kind of beauty.
Contrasts are among the eight categories of existence. From Whitehead's perspective even the Soul of the universe beckons the universe toward both kinds of beauty in different circumstances, both of which are contained in the very life of the Soul. Yes, God is deep simplicity boiling down to love and God is profoundly weird, as unfamiliar as anything we might imagine.
Healthy families and communities can be like this: simple in the kindness people extend to one another and weird in the uniqueness of each person, never reducible to the categories assigned to them.
And then there's the problem that the very dichotomy between simple and abysmal, pure and bottomless, can be faulty sometimes
Consider Basho's well know-poem in translation:
a frog leaps in
Is it simple or abysmal? Is it 18 or 25?
Contrasts have their histories. Sometimes two realities can be contrasting and then the contrast melts, so that they become one, which itself feeds into a new many. The many become one and are increased by one, and the one splays out, becoming many. There is no 18 and no 25. All is void and there is no Buddha. Still there's the leaping frog and the sound of the water.