Wednesday, December 23, 2009
My introduction to the Goldberg Variations came in 1991, when I was still in college, pretending to study music. I was completely directionless at the time, unable to decide if I wanted to be a writer or a composer or a filmmaker or a chain smoking vagabond; I did not have the musicianship to be a performer (nor the discipline to attain it), and I was thoroughly absorbed by the late 19th century, Impressionism, Debussy, Satie, Les Six -what I then considered to be the last great gasp of art. Silly youth.
My professor, for reasons only he knows, decided it was time to open our ears a little further and played both the 1955 and 1981 versions of Glenn Gould’s performance of the Goldberg Variations. I remember feeling transfixed, completely removed from my immediate surroundings and later borrowed a copy of the 1981 recording from the library. I listened to it for three days straight – the clean, clarified logic of it, the mathematical precision of it and the provocative intimacy of Gould’s humming spinning me further inside of it. I was 21, lonely and felt isolated amongst peers who were more outgoing than I was, better performers than I would ever be, seemingly unafraid of anything. I had never felt comfortable as a student. Bouts of anxiety and depression kept me largely friendless and while I was crawling inside my own skin to explore my varied obsessions, I rarely showed my own efforts to anyone. Then came Gould and Bach and the Variations and very suddenly I felt almost liberated.
On practice hours when one of the choir rooms was empty, I would sneak in, keeping the lights off and put on Gould’s Variations, usually the 1981 recording, which, while less energetic than the 1955, felt more personal to me. I would listen and watch the other students go by from the window, waiting for one in particular who went the same way every day. I watched her carrying her large sack full of books, hoping she would pause at one of the benches to rest so I could take her in for a short while. I never knew her name and never approached her, not even by accident. She was The Girl, with long, auburn hair, so thin she looked lost in the bulky coats she always wore. She didn’t remind me of anyone else. I’m not sure I would remember her face today.
One after the other, the Variations was the perfect accompaniment to my own youthful, anxious thoughts. Gould’s precision and egoless finesse bringing some order to the world, a sense of something more important, expansive, ongoing – sure of itself. I did not relate to my anxieties at those moments, or my depression, the mood swings that would leave me crawling in pathetic circles, up and down walls just to find some balance, some idea of where I was headed. The world was too much then, too straight to be suddenly gay in, too serious to be crazy, too demanding to not be good enough in. When the headphones went on, all the doubts went away.
Two weeks before that class, before that momentous (for me anyway) introduction, I had swallowed a bottle of pills, aspirin tablets mostly. I never cried out for help, had no interest in being helped; my family life was a mess. I had a younger brother with a terrible heart condition that, in two years, would make him a transplant patient. My parents were divorced and uninterested in anything but their own half-lives. I could not concentrate in my classes or anywhere else in my life. I wanted to learn but had no idea what to do with myself. I did not feel necessary, just another waste of space. Realizing I might also be gay only made my reality seem that much more alien. No one wants to be an outsider, especially where it rains a lot.
My suicide attempt failed, of course, though I was sick for about a week. I returned to class with no one the wiser, I had told no one of my attempt, only felt more pathetic than I already was, couldn’t even die properly. How difficult should something like that be, anyway? A part of me knew I didn’t really want to die – I just wanted some certainty, some clarity and something approaching self-esteem. I’d stopped believing in God in my teens, but I never stopped hoping. I just wanted to find my way through that unfound door, to Wonderland or Neverland or Oz or wherever the outcasts went.
Some eighteen years later, it matters less that I never found it, but I still listen for it. Listening has become the landscape of my dreams.