As the storm began to drip from the sky I found myself (as so often) in a back seat at the mercy of a madman. Lanes were shifting states of mind. First Avenue was a long vein (I thought in my daze) along which red lights like hemoglobin ran, glowing brighter as they slowed, clumping in difficult morasses and extricating themselves for a more perfect careening flow. My guide as he drove across intersections looked left not forward, in full motion, or barely and grudgingly slowing, glancing to gauge the souls of cross-streets. Few met his needs. His braking, even, was impatient. There is enormous space there in the back seat, too much space. I am a tossed toy there. The Avenue was a red compulsion, a motion guarantee, a bumpy lustful harrowing northward necessity: there, the next light, and the next. Beckoning, greening chain of blocks. I found the drive mysterious, I asked myself: again? The Food Emporium whizzed by, as always. I belted my body in, clutched my cell phone like a charm, found the constant left and right motion overwhelming, felt helpless, between a dream and an amusement park ride. On either side, narrow misses; we squeeze by. Even my thoughts seemed crowded, frightened, in the back of my brain, holding onto my skull walls for dear life.
The next evening I was crossing at 121st and Broadway to get a downtown cab and I stepped into an unexpected river near the median. It ran black, swift, cold, slanting down the great street, and my right foot went instantly frigid, suddenly aware of the world, like a college student graduating who must now find a job: the black shoe shiny like a beetle, immersed, emerging dripping and ruined. I stopped. There were no cars threatening in either direction, the bodega was shuttered, I was alone for a stark moment. Home and warm with shoes and socks abandoned around me the windswept rain just beat its random tap-dance against the rusty airconditioner, reminding me of that moment, and its manifold causes.
Music is amazingly well suited to depict rain … A particular favorite of mine is Debussy’s “Pour remercier la pluie au matin” [to give thanks for the morning rain], from the Epigraphes Antiques, which begins with an incredible 16th note ostinato, marked “doux et monotone” … soft and monotonous. I have always found this ostinato unnervingly beautiful, like a little plier or wedge inserted into time, forcing open some joint or nook in it which is normally hidden, smooth, continuous. Watching the water drip down taxi windows and sort of swoop and sweep around 91st Street yesterday, I was really enjoying (in a depressive way) its random endlessness: sensually, engagingly boring, a monotonous pleasure, like watching someone in a library writing their notes on index cards, hearing the soft scratch of pen across paper, the friction of molecules reflecting the strange ostinatos of thought, the lost encrypted hours. The code of a person: they sniff, scratch their head, shake their arm out, breathe uneasily, yawn, random bodily details. Each drop creeping slightly differently down the window, an endless array of data, but the net total a same down-drifting, a constant vanishing scribbling over the window landing in the drain. Over Debussy’s rain-ostinato, outrageously beautiful melodies begin to emerge and flower, but they do not dominate; they don’t become annoying apotheoses; rainy days don’t make for good apotheoses anyway… the rain speaks last, and most profoundly … The person in the library eventually gets up, stretches, heads back to world and friends, stuffing cards books pens into bag, and you know nothing more about them.
Composers mostly don’t wait for rain; they invent their own water. In the slow movement of the Archduke Trio, for instance, I feel Beethoven created the theme in order that he could simply swim in it. It’s a current which carries him, and the measure of his success is his surrender.
If it begins with duples, with the hymn and the hymnic, if it proceeds in stately quarters and eighths, by the first variation a different point begins to emerge. The music dissolves in triplets, the pianist is instructed to lavishly pedal, and Beethoven writes notes which float down and up in contrary motion, the hands like two mirroring waves, washing up against each other and retreating to the far ends of the keyboard, only to turn around and return (always, again, like tides). The theme has been “fluidified,” which is a ridiculous word to express the incredibly profound: abandonment of the discrete event and the washing-over of lines and demarcations: music’s love affair with continuity, the theme’s “passing over” into a different mode of existence, in which we no longer dole out our events and thoughts in bits and tablespoons of motive but simply turn on the faucet and let sounds flow. The flow is dictated, circumscribed, by the more discrete, previous theme, a structure which feels like the thin skin of the bubble which now floats.
I relinquish myself to the beauty of this variation, and try as much as possible to do as little as possible with it, whatever that means.
Beethoven’s choice, too, is clear: the premise establishes itself, and it runs on, then, more or less on its own. He tinkers, but only behind the scenes. The strings are made to do also as little as possible; they enunciate just the larger harmonic lilt, subtle self-effacing messengers of structure. In this way Beethoven draws the curtain aside to reveal no disappointing Wizard of Oz but the self-sufficiency of the idea: powerful, like a current; seductive, without deceit; the completely compelling, sustaining, non-narrative. In the next variation, we emerge somewhat from the triplet wash, to something dryer, more pointed, humorous; there is again a pointed edge to the variation after that, with its constant hocket of the hands; but by the Poco Piu Adagio, in the perfect words of my colleague the eminent principal cellist of our cheery NY Phil, we have come back again to a “great harmonic river.” The strings, in the middle register, hold down the harmonic fort, while from the left hand of the piano streams an unending undulation of 32nd notes, and the right hand offers an endless melody in its own time zone, a 16th note off from the other forces at play. A full but transparent texture, layers of motion, water passing over rock.
This slow movement slips in and out of this state—this fluid state. It passes from etched to brushed, and this drift, from real world to water-world, becomes its deeper theme below the theme.
As in so many Beethoven variation movements, the theme meets a “dark night of the soul,” where it questions its own identity by tearing itself apart. Beethoven has such an uncanny ability to do these things without a hint of contrivance, of the overwrought; he introduces the little free-radical note, the wrong note which leads down the “wrong path,” which always seems to lead to redemption, to some outrageously beautiful crisis and slow, masterful circling back home. And lo and behold, just at this moment, when the violinist and cellist are asserting some fragment of the theme in E major (the “wrong” harmony) the pianist interrupts, morphs the dotted rhythm of the theme into triplets, and submits the entire remainder to the triplet flow … I am sure Beethoven is calling back the world of that first variation, bringing its revelation back for a second look. The triplets never stop, then; nor do you want them to; they are an absolutely desired compulsion. You, I, all of us listening, the theme itself … all are taken by the current. The theme is refracted, then, through it; the triplet stream, continuing, absorbs all sorts of melodic and harmonic intensitiies, and there is an ache, a tremendous pathos, in the push and drag between the unbelievable material and the triplets which won’t cease to flow.
It is lazy to make up words, perhaps, when a scan of your existing vocabulary comes up empty, but I would like to propose in my laziness “threeness.” Why should a number have an emotional, adjectival function? But the theme here is made so much of thirds (F#-E-D), upwards and downwards, it is in 3/4 time, and you can see I feel the triplets have some import in the movement, comprising something like its most fundamental, truest, flow … its deepest current … and I believe there is something neither made of triplets or the interval of a third which expresses some deeper, familial connection between them, a weird charge of connected meaning. This would appear to be an abstruse point, in which I dissolve the magic of the movement into a number … but it is not abstruse for me at all, rather very emotional, instinctive, and irrational. For me the onset of the triplets is like a surrender to the most natural pace, to the perfect corresponding thing, to that which is in itself enough, that which—unlike the rain—you never want to end.