Long ago I wrote a paper for a music grad class comparing the two Glenn Gould recordings of the Goldberg Variations, written by J. S Bach. Nowadays I listen to the 1981 release once in a while through a sleep app on my phone.
But it wasn’t until last night that I noticed the similarities between the Variations and my fiction writing exercise where I wrote the same scene with the same characters, the same motivation, the same location, and the same sequence of events, changing POV, proximity, attitude of the narrator, voice, and writing style.
The Goldberg Variations is an aria with 30 variations. All have the same bass line, chord progression and number of bars (like a jazz chart), and 27 are, like the aria, in the key of G major and 3 in G minor.
An artificial structure that one of the greatest composers turned into a work of art.
Each third variation is a canon—a composition technique using imitation and counterpoint. In each canon the second voice imitates at an interval one step higher than the previous canon, beginning at the unison (zero) in variation 3 until the ninth in variation 27. Other variations are in the style of dance forms from the period or familiar musical forms such as toccata and fughetta and French Overture.
The work is a significant accomplishment by one of the greatest composers at the peak of his powers (Bach lived 1685-1750, the variations were published in 1741), and the fourth and last in a series of publications that included the Italian Concerto and the French Overture. A work that has been referred to as “most ambitious and most important solo keyboard work written before Beethoven“.
All within a structure as restricted and repetitive as the writing exercise I did.
I’m not trying to compare myself with Bach but rather to look at what he did within his restrictions and to be inspired to do more with my own. I don’t think it’s possible to turn my collection of exercises into something that has any artistic value (beyond the possibility that, were I a writing master, I could create such a range of presentations that would inspire beginners).
Bach is a master of creativity: only two of the variations are reputed to have musical connection beyond the repeated structure. The variations change melody, meter, style, tempo (though that is performer interpretation; in Bach’s day tempos were not specified), level of keyboard difficulty, and largely mood, though many are rather joyous in tone, perhaps with the goal of helping Count Kaiserling, Goldberg’s employer, relax and sleep.
Each variation is a story unto itself, which would be useful if you drifted off and woke up again. But in my exercise, the restriction of the primary characters with the same motivations and personalities and the same events eliminates substantially different stories.
So is my exercise more the equivalent of different performances of any one piece? Wanda Landowska versus Angela Hewitt? Gould versus Gould? Me versus anyone who can actually play the piano? I think there is more variation than that: it’s not just the interpretation and execution that I was changing, there is POV and voice and tense and style.
The Goldberg Variations is more like a collection of flash fiction pieces, each complete in and of themselves. But if one were to try to construct a fiction/writing equivalent, these flashes would have some structural element that ties them together, and maybe more than one. Location, perhaps, is similar to musical structure; they could all take place at the same bus stop. And perhaps the bus, or maybe the bus is like the mode; present most of the time but not all, like the Goldberg is in G, mostly major, but three in minor.
But I don’t think you can restrict it to multiple renderings of the same incident. That’s what I was writing, and that’s more like trying to create different arrangements of one song: as a bossa nova, a waltz, a rap tune, a fugue, an uptempo jazz chart, an unorthodox version in 5/4 or 7/8, and so on.
You could use the same major characters, but the situation would have to change, it would be a series of events over time like a couple having breakfast. The problem (or advantage) of this would be the tendency to want the flashes to work together for some greater meaning, perhaps a progression reflecting the evolution of the relationship.
But that is not what the Goldberg is. The sequence is pleasing and has a structure of its own (the series of ascending canons in every third variation) but the later canons do not develop the earlier canons. Each variation can stand alone, like Bach’s 20 children. So perhaps the bus stop, with the bus present often, but different characters, different times of day, different weather, different events, each flash complete by itself, so if you fall asleep and miss a few, you won’t be lost when you pick it up again.
Because my objective with the exercise was to force myself to find different voices and styles, it does seem to be more like multiple arrangements of the same composition, so maybe it’s not as similar to the Goldberg as I originally thought.
But maybe this can make for a good NaNoWriMo structure; to use the same location and a few other similar structural elements and write 30 short stories, one for each day of November.